In a stunning contrast between the beautiful and the macabre, the opening shot of The Neon Demon is emblematic of Nicolas Winding Refn’s whole oeuvre. His fascination with the lurid is only matched by his penchant for creating strikingly beautiful images—an artistic paradox rejected by the more impatient and less open-minded of his audience, quick to judge the dazzling visuals of his films as vapid because they lack a more conventional narrative to back them up. The irony of Refn’s critical backlash is that The Neon Demon is precisely about an industry which places judgement on individuals based on the conventional and superficial standards of beauty. It’s not so surprising that the controversial director’s newest venture sets its sights on the fashion industry, because like Refn’s films the fashion industry is a paradox between the beautiful and the macabre—a culture that obsesses over beauty, but with it an inherent consumerist
No question Nicolas Winding Refn‘s films are divisive, they’re violent and disturbing and, backing that, they lack easy-to-follow narratives. But like the majority of his work, The Neon Demon is naked metaphor, subtext presented as text. A unfiltered collage of Nicolas Winding Refn’s sentiments and ideas. For an industry that encourages filmmakers to be more audacious and original in their projects, Refn seems frighteningly accustomed to justifying the existence of his own. Only two years after the release of a critical favorite Drive (2011) viewership seemed less inclined to accept the direction of Refn’s more daring artistic pursuits. After some bad press at the Cannes, and a stark deviation of narrative style, critical favor seemed almost too willing to accept that Refn, who most agreed had just created his magnum opus, had taken a complete left turn with Only God Forgives. How audiences had so enthusiastically accepted Drive in the pantheon of greats and consecutively (without question) rejected Only God Forgives brings up a troubling attitude towards films in general (and how we respond to them). Both Drive and Only God Forgives operated under similarly baroque and simple makeups. Drive, aside from being horrifically violent, visually indulgent and morally demanding, was sweetly romantic. Only God Forgives, aside from being horrifically violent, visually indulgent morally demanding (perhaps even more so than Drive), was unromantic and cynical.
The parallels between Refn and the fashion models in his film are obvious, to be ingested and spat back out spells out not only Refn’s rise and fall (so to speak) but also the short longevity of a career model. It’s no coincidence that The Neon Demon features former model Abbey Lee as the star (who herself is quite outspoken about her disdain for the industry). Here she plays a fashion model disposed of in favor of an emerging and younger beauty, played by Elle Fanning. It’s a somber, degrading reality where your looks have become everything. Nicolas Winding Refn’s touch of depth has always encouraged us to look beyond the exterior beauty of his films. He does the same Elle Fanning, Abbey Lee or their co-star Bella Heathcote. He doesn’t so much explore the psychology beneath their arm candy appeal and facial greasepaint but the blood and guts, feelings and unfeeling, that function inside every living person.
Nicolas Winding Refn frames The Neon Demon with a deceptive indifference to his subjects. Staged like ornamental objects before the camera, he holds film’s women in a state of suspended animation. They’re strikingly alluring but, denied both their grief and words, strive only to become hollow stills on the pages of magazines, and figureheads on mass-marketed posters and industrialized billboards. Refn’s polished refinement in recreating the stiff and hushed stillness of studio photoshoots carries with it an obvious suggestion of morality-fuelled subtext (which is still effective despite the baroque obviousness of it). It’s only when The Neon Demon becomes a terrifying nightmare of spatter horror (in the colorfully disciplined tradition of Mario Bava, and other “giallo” shock artists) that Refn seems to unleash his expressive distastefulness in way that truly concedes the fundamentally ugly vision of his film.
When first blood is spilt in The Neon Demon (in a scene that remarks on popular culture’s strange and ghoulish attraction for vampires), Refn reveals, in indulgent and stomach-churning detail, that only a thin layer of skin separates us from the hideous, bloody entrails that make us all ugly monsters.