ScreenCritics Adam explores 2016’s ‘The Neon Demon’.
Most films you watch are pretty simple in their construction. For the most part, they mostly deliver a simple a narrative that hopes to entertain you for two hours, or at least be interesting enough to make you part with your money. Some of these are good, some of them are bad. That’s how it goes. However some aim to use the visual medium to do more than just tell us a story but also give us an experience. It was something that David Lynch excelled in when he regularly gave us films and that’s what the Neon Demon wants to do as well. But does it?
Jesse (Elle Fanning, Maleficent) wants to become a model so she moves to Los Angeles to have a crack at it. Her natural beauty sees her rocket to the top of the LA modelling scene but it’s not all going well for her as when other models start to notice her success, they soon become jealous and plot to take her down.
So with the director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) treating this film as more of an art piece rather than a regular blockbuster movie, I sort of have to as well. So when there is a seemingly pointless scene such as when there is a cougar that roars like something that is definitely not a cougar while tearing up Jesse’s motel room, you sort of have to let it lie as this scene isn’t really there to push the narrative but to build the atmosphere, which is what this film lives on. And with complete credit to Refn, he sure knows to build one. This entire film is drenched in this stylish darkness, the sort where you are genuinely on edge as you are unsure what the film will do next. And with this film meant to be a dark parable on the dangers of modelling, this is exactly what Refn needed to do.
And it helps that Refn has filled this film full with stunning shots. You may criticise some of his movies, I certainly do though I do adore Drive, but he sure knows how to pick a shot and this film is another example of that. Whether it is the captivating sequence where Jesse is at her first LA party with the other models staring at her, wondering why she is so special or the first catwalk that Jesse does, the film is full of scenes which have shots that are just divine to look at. This is another one of those films where you can pull any shot from it and put it in a gallery, though this is likely to be put in one of those twisted galleries the National Lottery wouldn’t touch.
However while The Neon Demon is full of style, it has literally no substance. As I’ve mentioned before, this film is meant to be a poison pen letter to the fashion industry and how it devours naive youthful people and turns them into nasty beauty obsessed women. However this is where the style completely works against the film’s message. Because the film feels so unearthly and so bizarre, it never feels real enough for us to relate it to the actual fashion industry. So this is less a devastating blow to an industry but a weird take that models are going to ignore because it’s too weird.
And the film fails on a character level too as well. Oh sure, the villainous models Sarah (Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Dark Shadows) are done well as they are literally treated as vampires for most of the film which works for what the film is trying to do but everyone else is bizarre. It seems like Jesse is going to go through a naive to twisted sort of arc, done before but can still be effective, but it’s less than an arc rather than a sudden drop. One scene she’s naive and sweet, next scene she’s bitter and obsessed with modelling and beauty. It’s just way too sudden and it seems as if some scenes have been cut or Refn was a bit too impatient to get to the next stage of his story. And the make-up artist Ruby has a bizarre arc which is not even worth mentioning.
And to be quite frank, the bizareness in The Neon Demon only takes you out of it rather than help bring you into this world. And yes you can see exactly what Refn is going for here, he obviously wants to be seen as a modern-day David Lynch and this is meant to be his Mulholland Drive. But while that film did have some utterly bizarre things in it, it felt like they were there for a reason and that some actual thought had gone into the scripting. Here, it just feels like bizareness for bizareness sake, like Refn feels he will be respected more and that The Neon Demon will be on film syllabuses for the rest of time as people try to analyse it. We won’t, as the visuals, while very nice to look at, are usually pretty obvious rather than deep.
With the way The Neon Demon is filmed and portrayed, I can see this film quickly gaining a cult fan base that call it one of the best films of the year, much like The Cell did many years ago. And quite honestly, I’m glad that there are directors out there like Refn who are obviously trying to continue the mad streak of David Lynch as there aren’t many people out there doing that anymore. But for me, this is a film that is gorgeous to look at, but has nothing under that thin veneer to make it worth a revisit. Much like the fashion industry it’s based on in fact.
OH S**T I GET IT!