Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Neon Demon

I remember being in something of a minority regarding Nicolas Winding Refn’s last film ‘Only God Forgives’ – i.e. I liked it. Notwithstanding the welter of bad reviews, I was convinced that Refn had found the most brutal yet visually beautiful way possible of crafting a statement on the brutality and ultimate futility of violence.

At its most striking, ‘The Neon Demon’ is every bit as visually stunning as ‘Only God Forgives’, but that’s all it really deals in: surface sheen. Yes, there’s an argument to be made that the film’s subject – fashion, modelling, and pursuit of success in said milieu at the cost of everything else – demands nothing more than surface sheen. Let’s face it, if you want to satirise the fashion industry, all you’d need to do is point a camera at it and wait for it to become a parody of itself. Which it would do pretty quickly. In fact, you’d barely have time to make a cup of coffee and butter a slice of toast.

Yet ‘The Neon Demon’ always seems to be just a missing scene or another draft of the script away from being something more. The aesthetic ranges from Cronenbergian body horror to a Lynchian exploration of the how the internal landscape is mapped onto the external (or maybe vice versa), while the narrative is a complete mishmash, clearly wanting to evoke classic “rags-to-riches” and “rise-and-fall” stories but mainly chugging along at the level of ‘Showgirls’. If Verhoeven had thrown in necrophilia and cannibalism.

Ah, yes: the contentious stuff. I’d like to think that its inclusion is another indicator of the something else that Refn was striving for – at the very least, the most extreme juxtaposition possible with unnamed but Svengali-esque fashion designer (Allesandro Nivola)’s assertion that “beauty is everything” – but I’m more inclined to believe that it’s simply a reaction to the outrage over ‘Only God Forgives’; a case, in other words, of Refn thinking “okay, you fuckers, this time I’ll give you something to really get offended about”.

The offensiveness-o-meter registers its first blip when small town girl Jesse (Elle Fanning), just 16, orphaned and looking for fame and fortune in the big city, encounters Hank (Keanu Reeves), the manager of the shitty motel she’s lodging at. Hank’s an odious individual from the off; as the film progresses, Hank attempts to pimp out the 13-year old runaway in the next room to Jesse’s wet-leaf boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) – “some real Lolita shit” is how Hank delicately puts it. Later, Jesse ascribes an attempted incursion into her room to Hank, then hears him barging into the minor’s room and a lot of commotion ensuing that sounds decidedly unpleasant. At this point, terrified, she flees the motel and seeks refuge with make-up guru Ruby (Jena Malone).

Ah yes: Ruby. Jesse meets Ruby at one of her early photoshoots and utterly fails to identify her as a predatory lesbian, the single character trait that the script bothers to offer her. As well as seemingly doing every model in LA’s makeup, Ruby moonlights at a mortuary where she prepares cadavers, making them as lifelike as possible for their open coffins. This would have been the film’s best satirical hit, only Refn takes it that bit further … and by “that bit further” I mean straight through the barrier marked “good taste”, all the way down the dead-street signposted “if it was good enough for Jörg Buttgereit, it’s good enough for me” and up in flames as it goes barrelling into the concrete wall spray-painted with “way to go emptying the cinema like that, dude”. Said scene is the most thankless thing modern cinema has ever done with Jena Malone and that includes casting her in ‘Batman vs Superman’ and then consigning her to the cutting room floor. And even then, let’s spare a thought for poor Cody Renee Cameron as the other, uh, participant. Sort of participant. Ahem, moving swiftly on …

It’s also through Ruby that Jesse meets established model Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and aspiring model Sarah (Abbey Lee) – their characterisation runs to sullen with a tendency to bitchiness and sullen with a tendency to self-loathing respectively – and seems apprehensive of them right up to the point where Nivola’s predictably arrogant designer picks her on a whim to be the New Face of Whatever. Granted, Jesse’s transformation from sweet and innocent to not so, played out in a single scene, is the film’s equivalent of the “Club Silencio” sequence from ‘Mulholland Drive’ and lingers in the mind just as effectively.

To be fair, there’s quite a bit that ‘The Neon Demon’ gets right. It’s graced with good performances – Fanning is terrific; Malone, Heathcote and Lee all surpass the thin gruel they’re given to work with; and I haven’t seen Reeves this engaged with a role in ages. Cliff Martinez’s score gives the head-fuck imagery an unnerving aural accompaniment. And speaking of imagery, step forward cinematographer Natasha Braier. A lot of talent and a lot of thought – particularly around the symbolism in Jesse’s hallucinatory scenes – has gone into the production. It’s just that the end result seems so hollow. Had Refn’s go-for-the-jugular approach, rammed home as it is with such exquisite commitment to bad taste, been aimed at a more labyrinthine and multi-layered subject, ‘The Neon Demon’ could have been a visceral and essential work of cinema instead of a vaguely unsatisfying one.

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