‘Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.’
The Neon Demon is, as Mark Kermode quite rightly put, a film you either choose to get onboard with or you don’t. Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest export is as divisive as it is disgusting; a lurid, transcendent examination of the constructs of aesthetic beauty and perfection, concepts which are channeled technically and thematically in several of Refn’s works. Many will argue The Neon Demon is an exercise of style over substance, and they’d be right to an extent, but in this instance the film’s highly-stylised and contrived visuals only further enhance its presentation of the idea of beauty as a ‘currency’, something to be pushed and exploited for power and adoration.
This film is a complete visual marvel, which feels slightly redundant even pointing out when describing a Refn film, but seeing it on the big screen was one of the most indescribably beautiful and transfixing experiences I’ve had at the cinema in recent years. The incredible use of colour and lighting, particularly in the first act of the film, felt strikingly Kubrickian at times, with the warped and heightened reality Refn creates feeling incredibly reminiscent of certain shots from Eyes Wide Shut. Cliff Martinez provides a sultry electronic score which carries the film into even murkier depths, creating a relentlessly unsettling feeling of danger, mystery and anticipation.
In praising the film I must also talk about its excellent cast, with Elle Fanning’s youthful, doe-eyed radiance creating the perfect juxtaposition between her character, 16 year old aspiring model Jesse, and her older, more corrupt model counterparts, who envy the innocent and untainted purity which elevates her above them in their attempts to achieve perfection. Jena Malone undoubtedly steals the limelight, however, with her daring and disturbing performance as agency makeup artist and mortuary beautician, Ruby, providing some of the most abhorrent and uncomfortable scenes of the entire film. Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks and Alessandro Nivola give uniquely unnerving supporting performances, all promoting the idea of beauty as a necessity in their own twisted way. The characters are arguably thinly written and the film doesn’t delve particularly deeply into the nuances of its subject matter, but whether this is a detriment to the film’s quality is something I feel will be different for each viewer.
What interests me about the film’s narrative is its absurdity. Rather than simply offering a scathing attack on the fashion industry, which the film could quite easily have been in the hands of a different director, Refn presents his own unique vision of what it means to be beautiful, and the darker aspects of humanity which aid us in fuelling our own ego and ambition.
In true Refn style, this film is designed to shock and repulse, with intense but minimally used gore punctuating its deliberately slow and drawn-out pace, building to a startling, yet arguably darkly humorous climax. Many will hate the slow, meandering nature of The Neon Demon, but those who enjoy evocative visuals and slow-burning tension will likely love it as much as I did. Critics of Only God Forgives may find this film a little more appealing, as the plot is considerably more substantial and straightforward than the aforementioned film. To say that people’s opinions are subjective is stating the obvious of course, but it’s definitely important to bear in mind when approaching this film, as Refn’s filmography shows a strong trend of polarising audiences and critics, and this film is no different. Regardless of its critical success,The Neon Demon is one of this year’s most interesting films yet: gorgeous, nightmarish and depraved cinema.