Nicolas Winding Refn may have found the perfect bedfellow in the fashion world, seeing as how his particular brand – his credit as ‘NWR’ hammers home the fact that he really is a brand name now – of cinema is largely made up of empty, intensely stylistic cinematic treasures and travesties.
Entering the literally cutthroat world of high fashion is the film’s somewhat passive protagonist, Jesse (Elle Fanning. She’s a small town girl, an orphan, who has come to LA to find fame using her looks and nothing else. She admits to the drippy Dean (Karl Glusman), who is enamoured with her, that she can’t do anything else, but knows that she’s beautiful and that has value. Or at least, it has value in a world stripped of any other meaning beyond what exists on the surface. Such a perfect fit for Nicolas Winding Refn you see, as The Neon Demon hinges on you looking at the film and listening to the film, transfixed by its aesthetic values, but not actually thinking about or deconstructing what you are seeing.
Nicolas Winding Refn creates some incredibly arresting imagery – sequences filled with bold Bava-inspired blocks of colour, abstract tableaus and deliberately artificial staging – but a lot of the time this is all about very simple tricks, the amount of symmetry in the film is often almost comical. The score, from now frequent Nicolas Winding Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, is more than a match for the visuals, frequently actually exceeding them in terms of being interesting or original. Martinez has crafted a varied score that at the same time is very much part of one whole piece, filling the film with synth washes, pulsing beats and dread-inducing tonal work.
If one stops and analyses what you are actually witnessing though, the whole glacial endeavour shatters into a million tiny pieces, especially with regards to the degree to which Nicolas Winding Refn attempts to have his cake and eat it.
If this is intended as a critique of the fashion world, then it is a truly dreadful one that ranks far below the likes of Zoolander with regards to subtlety. It stumbles, trousers around its ankles into hypocrisy more and more as the plotting, such that it is, ramps up into an absurd finale that borrows an idea from the likes of Heathers, but carries over none of the wit or intelligence.
The Neon Demon is rare in Nicolas Winding Refn’s work for focusing on a female POV, but at no point in the film does this actually convince, this appears to be more about placing unpleasant male fantasies – some of which are deeply misogynistic – in the hands and eyes of women, thereby somehow excusing their horridness. An idea or a sequence within a film can, of course, still be misogynistic, even if the character representing the viewpoint is a woman. Nicolas Winding Refn’s seeming attempt at a ‘get out of jail free card’ here is utterly invalid. And any sense that he is also skewering the fashion world and all its body-shaming and superficial awfulness, collapses when the film constantly wallows in it with sleazy delight.
A frequently nasty film, The Neon Demon represents both the zenith and nadir of Nicolas Winding Refn’s career. Button pushing in all the wrong ways, this is a film that would perhaps be a little less objectionable if it actually was more vacuous, but Nicolas Winding Refn is frequently dealing with complex and important ideas such as female empowerment at one end of the spectrum, and rape fantasies at the other end, but he, for the most part, gets this all so disastrously wrong.