Whatever you may think about the quality of his output, Nicolas Winding Refn’s evolution as a filmmaker has been a highly illuminating one. From the grotty streets of the Pusher trilogy’s Copenhagen to the sleek lights of Drive and The Neon Demon’s Los Angeles, his trajectory is as much an illustrated American dream as it is a reflection of the complex, often one-sided dialogue American and European popular art has been engaged in since the end of World War II. Like all good European students of American film, Refn has only assimilated Hollywood codes to better drift away from their original framework, transposing them into a setting that sheds new light on their meaning. In his case, this translates to a consistently studious study of surface that informs both theme and treatment thereof – whether it’s Bronson’s self-constructed action star persona or Drive’s reified character archetypes, artifice is as much Nicolas Winding Refn’s tool as it is the subject and material he works on.
The Neon Demon, which uses a surreal variant on the familiar “naïve-country-girl-goes-to-Hollywood” scenario to satirise the fashion industry, provides a promising outlet for him to refine his craft even further, and in its best moments it does just that. However, in doing so, Refn inadvertently exposes a lack of insight that ends up dulling this film’s impact.
Though The Neon Demon’s largely female cast may give the initial impression of a sharp departure from its creator’s previous blood-soaked tableaux of violent masculinity, the difference is only one of perspective. Though surrounded by fellow women Jesse (Elle Fanning) may be, the male gaze gravitates around them like an omnipresent, all-powerful deity on whose whims their fate depends. This is apparent from the very first scene. Starting with a shot of Jesse lying apparently dead and bloodied on a couch, the camera pans back to reveal the set of a photoshoot before cutting to a three-quarter shot of photographer, Dean (Karl Glusman), lowering his camera.
His head, tilted down like a character in a Stanley Kubrick film, stares at her off-screen before a counter-shot dollies back towards a now empty couch. These opening shots, in addition to introducing the film’s protagonist, setting and tone, also define the audience’s relationship with its own outlook. Dean’s sinister gaze is associated with our own by the shots’ combination, and his following characterisation as the film’s sole sympathetic male character only reinforces that sense of identification. No matter what thoughts or feelings may motivate it, our gaze is always tinged with an underlying threat of control, violence or annihilation.
It’s a threat that manifests itself explicitly whenever a male figure who isn’t Dean shows up but never truly materialises according to audiences’ expectations. The most memorable of these instances occurs during Jesse’s test shoot with professional photographer, Jack MacArthur (Desmond Harrington), which takes a dark turn as he orders everybody out and coldly instructs the increasingly tetanised girl to remove her clothes and turn around. The audience is left bracing itself for the worst until Cliff Martinez’s soothing synthetic strings end up scoring nothing more than a body paint job. Similarly, Keanu Reeves’s sleazy motel owner grows in menace with every appearance, only to affect Jesse’s fate in an indirect and possibly even imaginary way.
Not restricted to creepy men or their machines, the threat of the male gaze looms even in outwardly innocuous scenes, such as Jesse’s interview with model agency boss Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) or when her rivals Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) debate her rapid rise with amorous makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). It’s present in the women’s subtly pointed use of the verb “shoot” to describe their photographers’ actions toward them (“Jack was shooting her”, “Jack shoots me all the time”) or in Refn and Director of Photography Natasha Braier’s stark use of colour that either sharply contrasts Elle Fanning’s alabaster skin and pale blonde hair with her surroundings or merge her with them as if she were a mobile ornament.
Much of the filming of Jesse and her models occupies a strange space between objectification and clinical de-eroticisation, best exemplified in the scene in which Jesse and a group of other models are made to walk in their underwear before a panel composed of designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) and his assistant. Any potential for titillation is sapped away by the symmetrical compositions, long focals, monochromatic colour scheme and careful camera positioning. It’s an admirable approach, made all the more necessary by Elle Fanning being 16 years old at the time of filming, and one that offers a potentially rich take on self-image, representation and power.
Regrettably, these ideas seldom move beyond the realm of evident self-demonstration. Clearly confident in his camera’s ability to bring up his characters’ violence to their pristine surface, Refn films the ensuing clash, drain and transfer of personas with typical virtuosity (the climax makes excellent use of Elle Fanning and Bella Heathcote’s facial similarities) but draws no original conclusions from it.
In the film’s central turning point, Jesse’s first show is visualised as a psychedelic trip towards a giant neon triangular prism in which she sees two reflections of herself she proceeds to kiss. It’s an effective way of signalling her transitory embrace of narcissism as a surrender to the camera’s hypnotic gaze but it also represents the limits of the film’s discourse. Stylistically, it recalls the deadly seduction scenes in Under The Skin but leads to no comparably subtle examination of our gaze’s transformative power. The promises voiced by earlier sequences lie stillborn in our memory, as Refn cranks up the shock and horror for the next 40 minutes rather than whetting our appetites for them. Instead of shining a new light on the characters, the third act’s skin-crawling little twists merely prolong already established nuggets of truth to the point of redundancy.
The Neon Demon’s failure to build up to any meaningful statement on either the cutthroat world of fashion or its creator’s own view of women is made all the more disappointing by the undeniable mastery with which it touches upon these themes in individual scenes. Nicolas Winding Refn continues to evolve into a kind of abstract post-modernist genre filmmaking, further away from his original parameters – all while retaining intellectual consistency. This marks him as a significantly deeper artist than the Hollywood pop artisans who sometimes inspire him, so it is doubly tragic that what should have been a thoughtful exploration of the male gaze ends up saying less on the subject than even Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch.
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Scr: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws>, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Prd: Nicolas Winding Refn, Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval
DOP: Natasha Braier
Editing: Matthew Newman
Music: Cliff Martinez
Running time: 118 min
The Neon Demon is out on DVD now.