The opening credits for The Neon Demon play over a velvety surface, washing in and out of deep color after deep color, punctuated by Cliff Martinez’s thrumming music. Beneath the credits, in the same glowing glitzy font, appears a vertically positioned, stylized “NWR” (the writer/director, Nicolas Winding Refn). Whether it’s a moment of pure self-indulgent narcissism, pure self-awareness, or bizarre humor I’m not sure, but interestingly enough (and intentional or not) those three little characters stand as a microcosm for The Neon Demon as a whole. After the luxurious credits the first “real” shot of the movie is of Elle Fanning’s character Jesse alluringly positioned on a satin looking sofa. Blood drips down her arm and off of her finger and pools on the floor in front of the couch, seemingly stemming from a fatal throat wound. We see, and hear, a camera snapping pictures off screen. The image is a brilliant visual representation of how blurred the lines are between beauty and death in Refn’s world. I didn’t know if we were being shown a crime scene or a modeling photo shoot.
The film is, in the director’s own bold, vulgar way, ostensibly Refn’s take down of a culture obsessed with beauty and youth, particularly highlighting that the notion of youth is perpetually getting younger and younger. 16-year old Jesse (whose parents have died, cueing us in that Refn is yet again going for his own twisted version of a fairy tale as he did with 2011’s Drive) has the “it” factor – she moves up faster than anyone around her. She has real, not manufactured, beauty (so says one hilariously nasty fashion designer). She’s flanked by two tall, thin, vicious models, a mysterious but hilarious landlord played by Keanu Reeves, and is befriended by Ruby (Jena Malone). Refn captures her rise with his now-trademark lucid formal style. It’s all pretty surreal and impressionistic and as unsubtle as you could expect from the director – scenes inexplicably become drenched in deep reds or blues, Jesse’s model competitors are seemingly placed within the frame as posable dolls. Composer Cliff Martinez and cinematographer Natasha Braier ensure that it’s a mesmerizing experience.
But there’s a bit more to it than that. This is Refn’s funniest movie to date, although his sense of humor reminded me more of David Lynch’s than Mel Brooks. Characters deliver stilted, stylized dialogue a-la Mulholland Dr. (at one point a rival model crudely tells Jesse, “So I heard your parents died”). Even the more extreme sequences verge on camp, as if the whole film is a winking mockery of itself. And it just might be, given its thematic concerns. There’s little denying Refn’s knack for aesthetics and texture. The Neon Demon is so sensual it often feels touchable. Despite its vulgarity (and my, does it get vulgar) it is an absolutely rapturous visual experience; its visual metaphors are as seductive as they are ham-fisted and inane (there are a seemingly endless amount of mirrors). But isn’t this all precisely what The Neon Demon is attempting to eviscerate? Refn’s own narcissism and obsession with beauty and death permeate every single frame – he fetishizes scene after scene. I’m not sure if it’s a stroke of stupidity or brilliance, hence the divisive reaction.
What I do know is that The Neon Demon is perhaps Refn at his most “Refn.” The way he revels in cinematic garbage (I’m staying vague here to avoid spoilers) in order to craft provocative, powerful images is pretty great. His film is hilarious, seductive, and often pretty scary, both psychologically and viscerally – I won’t soon forget the mountain lion prowling atop a motel bed. Refn’s an arthouse director who loves camp and trash – the vulgarity of The Neon Demon may be fetishistic, and it may be self-indulgent, but it is never meaningless.