Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
You get the feeling that Drive (2011) set Nicolas Winding Refn free. Free to navigate any cinematic route he chooses. It was his getaway vehicle to mainstream success. The inevitably difficult follow-up Only God Forgives (2013) disappointed many a Drive fan, despite the welcome return of Ryan Gosling. In both, his enigmatic presence effortlessly suited the shadowy underworld he operated in. Now the director’s latest pit stop (without Gosling at the wheel) is the notorious underbelly of L.A. fashion house modelling. A world that feels just as tailor-made for his own brand of luminescent darkness. A world in which all that glitters, most certainly, is not gold.
One of the most overtly stylised of today’s film-makers, the gloss is liberally applied from the get go. The ‘NWR’ insignia footnoting each opening title is either a self-aggrandising step too far, or a neat reference to Yves Saint Laurent’s instantly recognisable logo. Or both. Refn skirts the hem of pretentiousness throughout this, his first embrace and air-kiss of the horror genre. But a flirtation with pretension feels entirely appropriate, considering the subject matter…
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is the latest fresh meat to wash up on the west coast’s high altar of high fashion, wide-eyed and wonderstruck. But, unlike her artificially enhanced peers, she is endowed with that most elusive quality. Natural beauty. True beauty. It propels her to the top of her preening profession at bewildering speed, bewitching agents and photographers alike. She is admired, then envied, and, before too long, reviled by her competition. An innocent in the den of iniquity, her only benevolent influence is her nervous new boyfriend. He, predictably, gets dropped though, as she falls under the seductive spell of the devils of narcissism.
How fitting that the movie should have such a striking outer appearance …adorning the darkest of hearts. Pristine, streamlined, symmetry is used to great effect. A synthetic soundtrack ramps up the trademark Refn tone, a style overlapping the slick conventions of pop video, or, of course, glossy fashion advert. As for the content, it truly is a hive of scum and villainy, a cast of only the corrupt and the cruel. Every woman might be a self-obsessed vulture, but the men are far worse (Keanu Reeves relishes an over-the-top turn as her objectionable motel boss). Jesse’s naive young lover the exception that proves the rule, to a man they are all money-grabbing bullies and predatory abusers. The subtext is that this netherworld exists because of the misogynous male gaze. Its nihilism is exposed here, for us all to stare back into. And therein lies the true horror.
Something so distinctive, with such an extreme payoff, will not be to everyone’s …taste. Especially following in the slipstream of Drive’s triumph. Portraying the vacuousness of the modelling world carries the danger of imbuing the whole project with shallowness. And the plot is certainly threadbare. But, having escaped the race to chase populism, NWR is vying for something more tonal, something more artistic. That sharp aesthetic focus, the rich colour palette, the female protagonists, the electronic soundtrack: these are all classic ingredients of the ‘Giallo’ genre of horror film pioneered by Argento and Bava. The Neon Demon, then, feels proudly, referentially, like a contemporary (black-gloved) stab at Giallo. In a certain light, even the title bears the suggestion; Demons (1985) being a key work of the genre, ‘neon’ partially implying ‘new’. Is Refn covertly claiming he has conjured the new Demons? You sense he would love to.
This argon nightmare is a stylistically calculated examination of narcissistic emptiness taken to its most obscene conclusion. Its moral may have been stated before, but never through such a vicious, queasy allegory. The admonishing stare of models bearing down on us all from roadside billboards and adverts everywhere suddenly seem much more menacing in its afterburn.
★ ★ ★