This year Nicolas Winding Refn, the polarising director behind Drive and Only God Forgives, has released his most controversial movie to date: The Neon Demon. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a 16 year old girl that moves to Los Angeles seeking for a job as a model. However, as she’ll soon discover, the beauty industry is full of obsession, rivalry and cruelty. As it happened with Only God Forgives, this film was booed at Cannes… but did it deserve it, or was it just a victim of a close-minded audience as Refn’s previous movie? Let’s find out.
We already know Refn’s films always boast brilliant cinematography, clever use of colour and beautiful lighting. The Neon Demon is no exception, and delivers one of the most visually magnificent movies of recent years. Every single shot is incredible on its own, and they form a jaw-dropping whole. This time, Refn has greatly outdone himself, with the help of Natasha Braier, his cinematographer.
It could be argued that this approach is quite pretentious, and it does feel that way during the first few shots. Nevertheless, after the story starts to unfold, it is very evident that the stylistic choices were carefully crafted in order to enhance the storytelling. It may be true that Refn prioritises style over substance, but there is no doubt the both complement each other beautifully.
The main reason for the movie’s controversy, as has happened with the director’s previous movies, is the brutality it is depicted throughout its run-time. This time, however, that crudeness is taken even further, with some of the most disturbing imagery we’ve seen in commercial cinema in quite some time. Describing those disgusting scenes could be considered spoiling some of the most striking moments, so I won’t get into details, but I will say that they will be considered gross by most viewers. Those scenes are not fun to watch at all, but it must be said that they do contribute to the story. Refn loves metaphors and atypical storytelling, and he intelligently integrate those moments into the character’s lives.
That atypical way Refn has to develop narratives has resulted in many people not understanding his films sometimes. The metaphors and non-evident meanings of some moments can be a risky choice, and probably due to the reception Only God Forgives had, which featured a especially twisted storytelling, he decided to make this one easier to understand. Everything in The Neon Demon, until the last few scenes, falls into a more traditional narrative, since there is a lot of symbolism, but guessing every bit is not essential to follow the story properly. This decision makes the film a lot more enjoyable and accessible.
In addition, the director cleverly plays with audience’s expectations, creating the illusion that terrible things are about to happen, to then reveal it was just a way for the viewers to empathise with the protagonist and feel the fear she has running in her body. This happens during the first act, and the most clear example is the first photo shoot Jesse has. When the photographer clears the set and asks her to undress, the worst comes to our minds, especially since we know she is only 16. Instead, the photographer turns off the lights and paints her body in gold for the shooting to be more glamorous. Furthermore, this contrast makes the final sequences, full of gore, even more striking (if possible).
There is no weak performance in the entire movie, but Elle Fanning is the obvious highlight, with an outstanding job when portraying the protagonist. She delivers her lines very properly, but the moments in which she says nothing are so much more powerful, as her gaze is incredibly expressive. Her character’s fear, anger, disgust and more are perfectly conveyed in this powerful performance that could be one of the best of the year.
Cliff Martinez provides a very interesting and hypnotic score, and while it fits the tone of the film greatly, his job in Drive remains to be closer to perfection than anything else he’s done later.
Except for a couple of very disturbing scenes, watching The Neon Demon was a blast. Its looks are superb, and the story unfolds in a very interesting way. With the Refn seal all over it, this is a must for anyone who enjoyed his previous work or is interested in watching some out-of-the-box narrative cinema. In a nutshell, Refn’s cinema can be described as experimental. He escapes conventions and does whatever the hell he wants with his movies. In a time where most of what we see in theatres follows strict guidelines and we aren’t surprised at all, this breath of fresh air is more than welcome. 8/10