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First Look Review - THE NEON DEMON

A teenage model is engulfed in a dangerous world ruled by aesthetic obsession.





Review by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee


The Neon Demon was viewed at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.



Refn finally marries his frozen style with its optimal content. The Neon Demon, with its beautiful yet plastic women and its sulking seductive male photographers, is a movie about stilted beauty that is in itself stiltedly beautiful.


Trolli Brite Crawlers, a sugar-coated, nuclear-coloured brand of gummy worm, may be one of the world’s best candies. The neon colours appeal to the eye, just as their sugar-coated texture and tough gelatinous consistency make them a joy to eat. Still, would I want to eat Brite Crawlers every day? No. Do Brite Crawlers have any nutritional value? No. Are Brite Crawlers a great junk food? Absolutely. I was reminded of this over-the-top candy while watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film, The Neon Demon. The film appeals to the senses in a similar way as the candy - it hits an aesthetic sweet spot, and it gives you something to chew on for a while. But, also like Brite Crawlers, The Neon Demon lacks substance and fails to be filling. The film is unapologetic junk food; it’s great cinematic trash.


In this 18-year-old’s glow stick nightmare of a movie, Jesse (a sour-puss Elle Fanning) comes to Los Angeles with dreams of being a model. She’s integrated into the cutthroat nose-job world of modeling almost immediately. Soon, agents, photographers, and fellow models alike all recognise a distinct “it” factor in Jesse - a beauty that surpasses the modeling world’s already-high standards. The photographers become fascinated, and her fellow models become insanely jealous, as a sinister L.A. atmosphere bears witness to the bizarre drama that unfolds.

In many ways, Refn has found the perfect subject matter for his filmic style. Modeling involves standing still and being looked at. In photos, a model is frozen in some ethereal superhuman space in which he or she commands to be looked at, and our eyes are often happy to comply. This description could also be applied to Refn’s style. His characters are laconic and unsmiling, and what they say and do matters less than how they look while they’re doing it. Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive (2011) wasn’t a full flesh-and-blood character, but rather a visually pleasing vessel to convey Refn’s rather harsh vision of the world. In The Neon Demon, Refn finally marries his frozen style with its optimal content. The Neon Demon, with its beautiful yet plastic women and its sulking seductive male photographers, is a movie about stilted beauty that is in itself stiltedly beautiful.


For the first half of The Neon Demon, Refn really seems to be on to something interesting. He establishes a tone of palpable menace without being nearly as mindlessly nihilistic as he has been in the past. Without giving an early surprise away, Jesse receives a mysterious threatening guest in her shabby hotel room residence. The surprising revelation of the identity of this home invader adds nicely to the unsettling atmosphere. Tone aside, at one point Refn seems capable of downright poetry. The scene of Jesse’s first runway show is deliriously effective and beautifully ambiguous. As I mentioned in my Cannes Film Festival report, this montage, accompanied by Cliff Martinez’s fantastically heavy electronic score, comes as close to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) Star Gate scene as any sequence I’ve seen in any other movie, both in style and in pure intensity. It epitomises and expounds upon the film’s fine feeling for neon beauty in the midst of threatening darkness.

Still, just as Pauline Kael was quick to label 2001 as arty trash, the same must be done for The Neon Demon. The movie just goes off the rails, which in and of itself is not a bad thing - see Mulholland Drive (2001) or, better yet, Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) - but The Neon Demon derails in a way that sabotages any profundity it established in its first half. The scenes start to feel like schlock-fests that distract from, rather than elaborate on, the film’s core ideas. Some shock-value violence in a nightmare scene and a functionless attempted lesbian scene begin to indicate that The Neon Demon has run out of ideas (after Mulholland Drive, art-house nightmare femme lesbianism started to feel like a pretty superfluous trope in movies like these). The film’s ending is downright silly, and it really feels like a mistake, coming from a film whose first half feels so intelligent and serious.


Still, the betrayal of intelligence for unintentional frivolity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many have compared The Neon Demon with Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), but I think its cinematic heritage could more accurately be traced back to John WatersEat Your Makeup (1968) or Female Trouble (1974), black underground comedies in which models are put in extreme situations. But what’s hilarious is that Waters’ film is self-aware and Refn’s film isn’t at all. Apparently unsatisfied with a normal credit, Refn’s monogram, “NWR”, appears on screen for much of the opening credits.  I haven’t seen such self-seriousness like that in credits since D.W. Griffith. This applies to dialogue as well: when one model says to Jesse, “I hear your parents are dead…that must be hard for you,” the clunky dead-pan delivery feels hilariously earnest, and it’s that silly earnestness, juxtaposed with the film’s grim but gorgeous style, that makes us enjoy The Neon Demon all the more, albeit not as a great film. In this sense, Refn’s film accomplishes something amazing, seemingly by accident; the very flaws that ruin this dead serious auteur film are the same things that endear us to it. Its total cluelessness is a sign of a fun innocence that seemed to be already gone from movies by the time Waters made Eat Your Makeup in 1968 - and that’s worth something.

I probably won’t watch The Neon Demon again for a long time; there are too many movies to watch and re-watch that are much better. However, when the day comes that I do watch the film again, I will be sure to have a big bag of Trolli Brite Crawlers at hand, gnawing on fistful after fistful. It will be a fantastic night of beautiful ridiculous garbage.

Read Eric Hillis's review of The Neon Demon.

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