AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW
RUNNING TIME: 118 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
16 year old aspiring model Jesse moves from small-town Georgia to Los Angeles and meets makeup artist Ruby and older models Sarah and Gigi. She gets signed by the owner of a big modelling agency who tells her to pretend she is 19 and refers her to a test shoot with a notable photographer, Jack. After going on a date with another photographer called Dean, she returns to her motel room to find it ransacked and occupied by a feline resembling a cougar, and the unsavoury manager, Hank, demands that she pay for the damages. Jesse goes to the photo shoot with Jack, who calls for a closed set and covers her naked body in paint. The shoot is successful, but Gigi and Sarah begin envying Jesse’s youth, while Ruby is fascinated with her….
Nicolas Winding Refn is a very divisive filmmaker [his popular success Drive, though a terrific film, seems increasingly like an aberration in his career], to the point where even I sometimes have trouble trying to work out whether I liked one of his films or not. His last venture, Only God Forgives, seemed to me to be a cold, remote exercise and much ado about nothing when I saw it in the cinema. But something drew me back to it, and I bought the DVD, and second time round I bloody loved the thing. The Neon Demon didn’t even make it to many UK cinemas and a quick glance at the IMDB comments reveal much use of words like “boring” [I think I counted four uses of that particular word on just the first page of comments/reviews], “pointless” and “vapid”. Somebody even thinks it’s the worst film he [or she] has ever seen. Refn’s bizarre melding of Starry Eyes, Black Swan, Showgirls, Suspiria and the obscure Belgian vampire movie Daughters Of Darkness [in fact – come to think of it – I remember reading that Refn said he was partly inspired by the inspiration for Daughters Of Darkness and several other films, the real life Countess Elisabeth Bathory who used to bathe in the blood of virgins because she believed it would keep her young] at times seems designed to deliberately baffle and annoy, with no concessions to commerciality at all. Small wonder it flopped.
However, for those of you who wish that you were living in the first two thirds of the 70’s where crazy, self indulgent films were being made all the time by filmmakers who didn’t seem to care whether anybody would actually like what they came up with, or who still haven’t got over the fact that David Lynch will probably never make another picture, or who think that Darren Aronovsky has become far too mainstream, than The Neon Demon could well be the film for you….and it does seem that the picture has its fans. In terms of storyline and what it’s trying to say, it’s not – truth be told – very original, and the dialogue is sometimes groan-inducingly bad [though perhaps intentionally so], but it’s drenched in such glorious style that I was willing to forgive quite a lot. There’s the best use of colour in a film since – well, I was going to say Only God Forgives but I could probably go back further than that – and some sequences have such terrific tension that I think Refn should one day make a more conventional suspense picture. There’s also a lot of random stuff which makes little sense, like the big cat that turns up in Jesse’s hotel room early on which is never referenced again. I’m not sure even of the symbolism here, and this is coming from someone who ‘got’ some of Valhalla Rising right away because he knew a bit about Norse mythology. But in a film like this, such odd occurrences can add to, rather than detract from, the experience. After all, The Neon Demon makes no attempt to be straight forward even at the beginning.
The startling first shot is of a dead girl on a settee with her throat cut and blood dripping from her arm. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal that the artistic tableaux of death and the wall background it’s against is just a tiny part of a huge, otherwise almost empty, room and it’s all part of a photo shoot. As I watched this, I recalled with amusement once reading about a fashion show that Dario Argento did where he had the models seemingly stabbed to death and carried off in body bags. The woman is 16 year old Jesse, who wants to be a top model. In the changing room she meets makeup artist Ruby who prettifies corpses as one of her jobs. She invites Jesse to a party, and we get a simply stunning looking scene where the party is all bathed in blue and the two girls go into the toilets which are lit in a combination of turquoise and pink, and which is simply amazing to behold. There’s no reason why the location should look like this, but this doesn’t matter at all. It’s here that Jesse meets Sarah and Gigi who immediately regard Jesse with some suspicion and think that she must be “F******” someone to get even this far. These two are played by Bella Heathcoate and Abbey Lee in such an odd, distant manner that it almost seems like we’re watching another version of The Stepford Wives whenever they are on screen.
There’s much time spent at fashion shoots, one of them taking place entirely against a white background where you can’t even see where the floors, walls and ceilings end and begin, and another where she hallucinates kissing her own reflection in a large red prism. In fact, as I type, I’m struck by how few scenes there actually seemed to be in the film. Refn takes his time with everything, dragging even the simplest activity out and helping to create a genuinely dreamlike atmosphere as he does so. You could probably cut 20 minutes from the film, but any cut made would utterly destroy the rhythm that Refn has carefully created. Anyway, things end up in a mansion where the corridors bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the Tanz Dance Academy that Suzy Banyon visited in 1977. For quite a while, I thought that Refn had actually decided to make a film that was restrained in its violence and/or extreme material, but then we get some very bloody scenes [though the most gruesome activity during the final scenes is more suggested than shown] and a bit which I was genuinely surprised went as far as it did where a woman actually rapes a female corpse. As with a moment where somebody dreams that they are fellating a dagger, it seems like Refn is just trying to shock for the sake of it, but it’s good that there are still filmmakers trying to push things and shake things up a little. Another thing that rather pleased me was the amount of smoking in the film. No, I don’t smoke, but its increasing banishment from movies in a Health and Safety/PC-dominated culture has got a bit ridiculous.
The camera slowly tracks forwards and backwards [the best example of the latter being a pull back from Jesse listening by a wall to reveal her enveloped in darkness], while every set seems to have been thought out down to the tiniest detail and colour is meticulous. Jesse lies down on a red settee? She has to do it while wearing a red jacket which is the same colour as the settee. It remains astounding that Refn uses colour in such an incredible way yet is in fact colour blind. The Neon Demon was actually shot in chronological order and the ending was created and improvised on set. Apparently the screenplay originally had a different finish but the new one that was quickly thought up is less schlocky and more ambiguous, though seems to be over rather too quickly. Of course the whole thing is another allegory of narcissism and our preoccupation with and endless quest for beauty, with lines like: “Nobody likes the way I look” and “True beauty is the only currency we have”. A bit more subtlety wouldn’t have gone amiss, especially as it’s hardly as if Refn is saying anything new, and the fashion industry has become something of a stale target. One interesting aspect though is the casting of Elle Fanning [who replaced Carey Mulligan]. While I don’t think many would say she’s actually ugly, I don’t think many would say she’s gorgeous either, which makes the way everyone else in the film goes on about how perfect looking she is seem odd until you realise that we’re being reminded that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Keanu Reeves does a rather good turn as a sleazy hotel manager and Chrstina Hendricks appears as the head of a modelling group. As usual with Refn, the music plays a major role but here Cliff Martinez tops himself. Retro synth scores are of course common at the moment and there are distinct echoes of Tangerine Dream, Gorgio Moroder and even Goblin in Martinez’s work here, but there’s also some cracking dance stuff, parts are eerily beautiful, and the score is virtually omnipresent in a way music in films today tends not to be so much. The overused saying ‘style over substance’ could probably be applied to The Neon Demon, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ll pick up on much more stuff on my second viewing and will appreciate the film a lot more. After all, Refn’s previous film went, for me, from one of the worst films of its year to one of the best. Then again, I still found a great deal to enjoy in The Neon Demon, which may not have totally satisfied but was often hypnotic while it lasted. Thank god that filmmakers like Refn, whose particular style is undoubtedly influenced by the likes of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick but has become highly distinctive in its own right, are still around and able to make the movies they want to.