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 aesthetic paradox rejected by the more impatient and less open-minded of his audience, who are quick to judge the dazzling visuals of his films as vapid because they lack a conventional narrative to back them up.
The irony of his critical backlash is that The Neon Demon is about an industry which places judgement on individuals based on the conventional and superficial standards of beauty. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that Refn’s newest venture focuses on the fashion industry because like Refn’s films, the fashion industry is too a paradox of the beautiful and the macabre—a culture that obsesses over beauty but in doing so it fails to acknowledge the inherent ugliness behind it.
No question Nicolas Winding Refn‘s films are divisive, they’re violent and abstract, and the lack of a traditional narrative make them relatively difficult to follow. But like the majority of his work, The Neon Demon is naked metaphor, subtext presented as text. Nicolas Winding Refn is hardly the first to practice this style, but for an industry that encourages filmmakers to be more audacious and original, Refn seems too accustomed to justifying the existence of his own.
This proved frighteningly accurate only two years after the release of a critical favorite of his Drive (2011). After some bad press at the Cannes and deviation of narrative style, critical favor seemed almost too willing to accept that Refn, who only just recently directed the masterful Drive, had taken a complete left turn with Only God Forgives (2013). How an audience was so willing to consecutively accept Drive and immediately reject Only God Forgives begs a certain question, do the attitudes of conventional storytelling affect the way we respond to two equally abstruse films?
In other words, do we accept Drive over Only God Forgives because it hits all the beats we’re already familiar with?
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 who is disposed of in favor of an emerging and younger beauty, Elle Fanning. It’s a sombre reality where looks have become literally everything, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s touch of depth has always encouraged us to look beyond the exterior beauty of his films, just as he does in his film with Elle Fanning, Abbey Lee or their co-star Bella Heathcote. He looks at the models not with the lustful eyes or measured analysis, but with a two-faced allure that sees the destructive cost of beauty.
Nicolas Winding Refn frames The Neon Demon with an emotionless compassion for his subjects. He doesn’t so much see the plight of his models as exclusive, as beauty and youth hold a universal appeal, but sees the seedy underbelly of an institution that allows young women to go under the knife and, quite literally, manufacture a form of standardized beauty.
As a shock artist of sorts, Refn is content with allowing images to express distaste and horror, and to outright deny him of intent or reasoning behind his choices seems counter-intuitive for a film whose only guilt is seeing the fashion industry for what it is. If you found Refn’s film distasteful or unpleasant, then at least try to reason this was likely Refn’s original intent; The Neon Demon doesn’t deal in the pleasant or tasteful because nothing about fashion or modelling is either pleasant or tasteful.
There’s a crucial scene in The Neon Demon where Abbey Lee and Elle Fanning are auditioning for a lucrative spot as a runway model. Silence encapsulates the room. Eyes dominate the scene and barely any words are spoken. Nicholas Winding Refn is utterly dazzling with surface visuals, but that scene is noteworthy purely for its lack of it. Notice how the big life-altering decisions made in that scene are with eyes, judged on looks alone. Despite that, what makes the scene interesting, and utterly crucial, is what you can’t see. Emotions which can only be observed by the min. It asserts that the women on the screen need to be seen as people before objects that their roles in fashion modelling have turned them into.
The Neon Demon can dazzle and disturb with its images, but those are just pretexts, icing on the proverbial cake. What makes Nicolas Winding Refn a master stylist is how he understands his films through images instead of just decorating his films with them.