“When a film makes you gag, and you leave the cinema feeling kinda weird, then that’s a sign that it’s working.” Director and Moviedrome presenter Alex Cox was talking about David Cronenberg’s debut feature Shivers when he said those words in the 1990s, but he could have just as easily been talking about Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon.
This is the film, you may recall, that left people wailing and yelling at the screen when it made its debut in Cannes earlier this year. It isn’t difficult to imagine Refn standing off to one side somewhere and smiling at such a seething reaction, because his films are engineered to provoke and prod. You might not like Refn’s movies – which include Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive (his most commercial film yet) and 2013‘s Only God Forgives, which drew a similarly aggressive response – but they’re difficult to simply shrug off and forget about.
Refn’s recent films have largely dealt with masculinity and male violence in various forms, whether it’s the most violent inmate in Britain (Bronson), fantasies of gallantry and heroism (Drive) or nightmares about incest and revenge (Only God Forgives). When Refn turns his withering gaze onto the subject of catwalk modelling, you can bet that sparks are going to fly.
In The Neon Demon, Elle Fanning plays the slender, wide-eyed wannabe model Jessie, who shows up in LA with no contacts and only a crummy motel room to call home. The proprietor is a sleazy low-life (played with surprising conviction by Keanu Reeves) and her current photographer, Dean (Karl Glusman) is almost as naive as she is. Yet Jessie has a natural kind of beauty that seems to provoke a fascinated response in everyone she meets, from a talent agent (Christina Hendricks, in an all-too-brief cameo) to fashion designers to rival models. Even her makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone) sees Jessie and is smitten – more so than the young girl realises.
If Cliff Martinez’s thrumming electronic score and Refn’s long, colour-drenched takes don’t warn you that you’re not in conventional drama territory, then the early arrival of a huge and toothsome wild animal soon will. Thereafter, all bets are off, as Refn delves down into increasingly fantastical, sordid, gory and trippy arenas.
Through his geometric, colourful imagery, Refn weaves an unsubtle yet mesmerising fable about the modelling industry and those who reside within it. He presents it as an alien alternate universe where young women are contorted into something sexless and inhuman – unattainable symbols rather than people with their own desires and personalities. Refn very deliberately forges a link between fashion, predation, sexual violence and other taboo subjects – the point being that all of these things, from a seedy middle-aged man snapping pictures of a half-naked teenager on down, are about objectifying the human body.
No, this isn’t a particularly profound or original statement to make, but like a broad comedy that simply works on its own terms, The Neon Demon succeeds in making its aggressive, provocative statement. There is blood, there are moments to make you cringe and gag. Yet The Neon Demon is, vaguely in the tradition of Hitchcock, De Palma and Kubrick, also the blackest of black comedies. Refn revels in the bitchiness, the rivalry, the jealousy and the narcissism.
The handful of conventional dialogue scenes are really well staged and sharp, and Refn might be a little underrated in this regard. He has an affection for woozy images and long stretches of throbbing sound or eerie silence, but he can block a scene and tell a story economically as well as just about any director currently working. A scene where Jessie goes for her big audition is a great exercise in mime: the older model saucer eyed with ambition and fear, flipping over into jealousy and rage as Jessie snatches the fashion designer’s attention away from her.
A conventional drama about the corrupting power of modelling might have its central character morph gradually from neophyte to cynical self-absorbed goddess, but Refn’s too fidgety and restless a director to waste time with such conventions. Instead, he stages a phantasmagorical dream sequence where Jessie discovers that her beauty has power – and, like Narcissus, she becomes intoxicated by her own reflection.
Like Refn’s earlier films, The Neon Demon defies easy classification. There are moments that recall the operatic drama of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (in fact, one character even looks like Darren Aronofsky), but in other sequences it slips into pure horror, like Satoshi Kon’s animated classic Perfect Blue. It could be said that Refn doesn’t really care about genre so much as generating a response, whether it’s gasps of horror or outright hoots and jeers. If this is the case, mission accomplished. But The Neon Demon is far from a cynical exercise in boundary pushing; it’s also superbly acted, particularly by Fanning and Malone, and its most effective scenes are, once seen, difficult to shake.
About as close as Nicolas Winding Refn’s likely to get to making his own Psycho, The Neon Demon is a dark, unforgettable fairy tale about the power of images and the way we consume them.
The Neon Demon is out in UK cinemas on the 8th July.