The Neon Demon
(Check out my previous Refn essay on My Life Directed by NWR, if you haven’t already that is.)
The Neon Demon is my second favorite Nicolas Winding Refn film (behind my #1 favorite Drive). While Refn’s previous two films (Drive and Only God Forgives) were dedicated to Mexican Director Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Neon Demon is the first of his films to really mirror and show inspiration from him. The film is often labeled as a psychological horror film, and it has both of these elements in spades, from the narcissistic personalities fighting verbally and through their work to kill one another’s careers, to the real gore and bloodshed resultant from going all the way and taking each other’s lives. But certain images throughout the film evoke a surrealism akin to Jodorowsky’s own work and the framing and construction of mise-en-scenes in the work place it firmly within an art film context. So I would call it more of Surreal Arthouse Psychological Horror film, if anything.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) plays an aspiring model who has just moved to Hollywood in the hopes of supporting herself through her physical beauty. She meets a helpful young man, Dean, who gives her her first photoshoot opportunity, a talent agent (Christina Hendricks) who gives her her first big break, a fashion designer named Ruby (Jena Malone) with whom she becomes fast friends, and a whole host of other models and industry figures as she claws her way capriciously to the top, all the while losing her sense of modesty and becoming increasingly vain and narcissistic. The film focuses on the cult of beauty within Hollywood that promotes a view of self-worth based on physical appearance and takes the phrase “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” as its operating ethos.
Jesse’s youth (she is only 16, but pretends to be 19) and natural nymphet, Lolita-like looks subversively activate a part in the minds of industry heads that values innocence and pre-pubescent simplistic life, the eternal child and idyllic memories. She is immediately catapulted to the top of the industry and becomes a closer for fashion runways in the area. But she pisses off two other aging models, Gigi and Sarah, and she spurns the sexual advances of Ruby, which leads to some bloody consequences, but first to Ruby’s violation of a voluptuous corpse at her job as a mortician, while imagining performing the acts on Jessie of course. The rest of the film is a melange of literal blood baths, mountain lion infestations, vampirism and cannibalism, self-mutilation, and a particularly visually potent scene wherein a model vomits up an eyeball from her victim and her friend commences to re-consume it once more. The result is an image and a scene that deserves to be more iconic than it is and hearkens back to Bunuel’s Eye being sliced open, the hand with ants, or the dead donkey on the piano. The eyeball scene is certainly the best surrealist sequence I’ve seen in a film since the ear in the field, covered in ants in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet.
From Drive to The Neon Demon, in each successive film, Cliff Martinez has been the cinematographer. In each film, his music has come closer and closer to the forefront of the meaning of the picture and helped to tonally define the mise-en-scene in a unique manner characteristic more of cyberpunk (Like Blade Runner, Akira, or Ghost in the Shell) and philosophical anime (like Paranoia Agent or Wolf’s Rain) than traditional arthouse films. This “sparse electronic score” (Martinez’s words) derives a ton of inspiration from seventies and eighties pioneers in electronic music. We hear the rock beat power of a Giorgio Moroder, the instrumental eclecticism and sonic power of a Vangelis, the chimes and heavy backbeat of Goblin, and the industrial soundscape of Kraftwerk, all under the thrall and channeled through the prism of new synthwave and house music like Kavinsky. These elements make the film a riveting piece to not only watch, but to interact with musically (as I’ve been doing with my guitar and my Yamaha synth pads for the entirety of my most recent rewatch of the film).
The cinematography of the film seems, like in Drive, to suit the themes being expressed in the film. This is through the use of high contrast photography and visually thematic use of color unique to films within the neo-noir genre that spawned cyberpunk. When Jessie first realizes the power of her beauty, she is being photographed by one of L.A.’s most well-respected photographers and visual artist. Gold as the highest good is lavished upon her by both her make-up artist Ruby and in the form of body paint, which is sensually rubbed onto her body inappropriately by her photographer. When she performs her runway walk, the wait beforehand devolves into an internal warring sequence wherein she solidifies her narcissism and deep reds proliferate like lifeblood, the internality of the body becoming externalized, the inner knowledge becoming apparent: She is beautiful and can get whatever she wants through that beauty.
Elsewhere, when she comes back to the reality of her motel apartment in a shady neighborhood of L.A., the nights are dark and her glamour is obscured in shadow. In these scenes, she may be attacked at any moment by a mountain lion that has made its way through her open screen door, or sexually attacked by the predator who owns the motel (Keanu Reeves). These scenes evoke cinematically her uneasiness with being outside of her element and the seediness of the world around her that masks itself within the heart of the city, but becomes very apparent as night falls and anyone and everyone becomes a target. Status or no.
As Refn’s first film about women, and his first film with a cast of mostly women, he found it necessary to split with long-time collaborators Morton Soborg and Larry Smith, and instead hired a woman, Natasha Braier, to create the cinematography of the film. the gambit paid off as Braier knows better than any of Refn’s previous cinematographers how to capture beautiful people on film, even in grotesque moments. The choice was a gambit doubly because of Braier’s relative lack of work as a cinematographer hitherto. She had only worked as a cinematographer for around nine years prior to joining the production of this 2016 film in 2015. The only film she had shot of any real international consequence thus far had been her previous work on 2014’s The Rover, which is something of a minor masterwork of dystopian, vaguely revisionist western storytelling. But the grit of that film is hardly akin to anything that needed to be done for The Neon Demon. Braier pulled out all the stops, however, and created one of Refn’s most stylish, beautifully shot films to date.
The film was Refn’s third in a row to premiere at Cannes, and like the previous outing with Only God Forgives, received both standing ovations and cheers, as well as boos. It is the second feature film released under Refn’s production company Space Rocket Nation, though the majority of the funds came from Gaumont and Amazon Studios. It was his third big-budget film in a row as well, with a final price-tag of $7 million USD, but it failed to garner enough attention to earn more than $3.4 million USD at the box office: a possible result of his previous film being a relative critical bomb.
I hope that Refn is able to get the money to create the cinematic visions he hopes for in the coming years, though his career has been checkered from the very beginning with box office smashes interspersed with total failures, and there might come an unfortunate time when the money is no longer on the table and Refn could return to Denmark to create Pusher IV and V, though I know he loathes the idea.