REVIEW: The Neon Demon

26 06 2016

Many working directors can lay claim to being a “man’s director,” but few own it quite like Danish pornographer of violence (his words, not mine) and general provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn. The films that have thrust him into mainstream attention on the stage of global cinema have all centered around tough, masculine men exerting their dominance over other people and their environment. Seriously, the narrative throughline is practically flowing with testosterone.

Women, meanwhile, take backseat to these public displays of machismo. In “Drive,” Carey Mulligan’s Irene fulfills the classic archetype of damsel in distress, and Christina Hendricks’ brief appearance in the film as Blanche is far more memorable for her character’s bloody exit than anything she does. Was there a woman in “Valhalla Rising?” Honest question. “Bronson” gets a slight pass since it takes place in a single-sex prison, though the same cannot be said for “Only God Forgives,” which grants Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal only a mere foul-mouthed scenery chewing bit amidst a marathon of close-ups on emotionless Ryan Gosling.

In Refn’s latest film, “The Neon Demon,” women move front and center as he peers into the nasty, competitive void where one might expect to find a heart in the fashion industry. But after witnessing Refn’s misogynistic, insulting views of the opposite sex, it’s safe to say they might be better left on the sidelines in his films.

In the aforementioned Refn films, he conveys the idea of masculinity as a renewable resource. One can earn their stripes through hard work and a strong exhibition of power. As time goes by, the essence of one’s manhood can grow in size. “The Neon Demon” shows that he believes the exact opposite about women. Their chief currency, that of beauty, is finite and withering away with each passing moment. To maintain their status, women have to either cheat, steal or lie. Some can buy time for themselves by trading sexual favors with men, but what takes those girls to the top is what will also ultimately make them drop.

Jena Malone and Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon

It’s no secret that our culture, and fashion in particular, puts virginal virtue on a pedestal; Refn is not some kind of outlier in that regard. Elle Fanning’s Jesse, a 16-year-old oprhan told to pose as 19, walks into the jaws of the Los Angeles modeling industry fully cognizant of this as well. It’s at this point where one expects the male gatekeepers of the industry to make her forever the object of their gaze and a product for their exploitation.

Yet the men in the film are not the real villains – or really even villains at all. At Jesse’s first shoot, a renowned fashion photographer forces her to strip down out of extravagant clothing so he can smother her naked torso in gold paint. It feels like a rape. But his impulse comes from some deep desire to make art, so that puts him a rung above Jesse’s vicious, bloodthirsty fellow models. (The character, like several others in “The Neon Demon,” also feels like an easy out for Refn to excuse his perverse fantasies as naturally arising from the story, not just vicarious thrills.)

Nothing even remotely noble motivates the models to seek the breakdown of other women. Any sense of cooperation or shared wisdom seems completely off the table for these well-coiffed twigs. To sharpen their feminine wiles, they must cut into others. Even Jesse’s apparent ally in the biz, makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), has her ulterior motives. “Trust no one” might well be the operating mantra of “The Neon Demon,” but that message is nothing new. All the glistening colors and smooth tracking camera shots cannot disguise the fact that the film is a trite showbiz parable dipped in a hot vat of sexist thinking.

Refn’s last writing/directing gig, “Only God Forgives,” was similarly visually stunning. It was also little more than an incoherent series of brute, bravado-filled struts. “The Neon Demon” improves by having some kind of thesis, but when his ideas are steeped in truly loathsome ideology, whatever argument Refn tries to make is really not worth hearing. C2stars

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2 responses

27 06 2016
Caz

Seen the trailer for this a few times in the past month and really unsure whether to give it a go on its UK release!

27 06 2016
smilingldsgirl

It sounds awful. I’m surprised you gave it a C

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