31 Days of Horror 2016, Day 7: The Neon Demon (2016)

This movie just came out on home video, so spoiler alert, if you have not seen it but plan to.

Several people whose opinions I respect have told me that this movie was very good, and that it was a turn around for director Nicolas Winding Refn after the critical disaster of Only God Forgives. As someone who likes a slow burn of a film, as well as Refn’s visual sensibility, I anticipated giving this movie the old thumbs up. Unfortunately, that was not my experience. Instead, it was nearly two hours of trying to reconcile the fact that I could not look away from what was visually compelling, and yet clearly lacking in substance. In short, this film felt incredibly pretentious.

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So, let me rewind for a moment to offer a little bit of praise. Refn, for all his faults, has a truly keen eye. He’s great at creating these glossy, hypercolor landscapes and placing tidy little characters into them like he’s playing with a  high fashion doll house. I don’t think he could have cast a better lead than Elle Fanning (the superior Fanning, and one of my contemporary faves). Physically, she has an air of the ethereal, and she projects an emotional ambiguity that encapsulates the points that Refn was trying to make about the modern fashion industry. Jesse (Fanning) is both parts innocent and cruel, and it takes no time for her to shed the mask of pity and replace it with a crown of bitchiness. The character knows she is beautiful, and the more it’s validated the more she begins to take on the characteristics of her contemporaries; other girls who are constantly worried about being on top of the modeling game because, as they put it, “There’s a new one every week. Girls like her don’t last long.” The designers, photographers and make up artists are drawn to Jesse so intensely that it seems like she is something more than human, and I completely expected her not to be. Literally not to be. As she gets deeper and deeper into the modeling scene, Jesse lapses into furthering states of detachment and wanders into some rather surreal scenes.

and this is where the film lost me.

Normally, I am all for some artistically driven character or plot development. All my favorite directors are practically criminals of the uncanny. But in this movie it just didn’t work for me. There were a number of scenes that, while incredibly interesting to look at, didn’t mean anything. Or maybe they were meant to mean something, and didn’t quite pull it off. A friend of mine told me that they felt Refn is an incredibly earnest filmmaker, and that the extended cuts must have had purpose for him. And I can’t disagree with that opinion. And in that I believe is the film’s failing. Refn THINKS he is making a bold and interesting statement, but instead is just glazing over a dead horse with cinematic masturbation. Many of the scenes are strange, or even offensive, for the sake of it. They do evoke a response (this review is a keen example), but perhaps just not the one that was intended. Take for example the scene when Jesse officially climbs to the top of the modeling rung, and is asked to close the runway show of a popular fashion artist. Once she is on stage, the scene lapses into a psychedelic light show in which a bedroom eyed Fanning slowly and repeatedly kisses two mirrors that surround her, after looking deeply into a upside down, red, triforce symbol.

No, seriously…

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I’m not sure what’s really happening in this scene on the literal level (thanks Jeff, for that terminology). Is she dreaming? Is the triforce really there? Is this a mere voyage into symbolism? Whichever is the case, it seems like Jesse is the evil one. Instead, she is taken down by a trio of girls who are jealous of her quick rise to fame, one of whom is also sexually infatuated with her. In fact, the girls literally devour her; and, I have to admit, I kinda liked that. I was not expecting to fulfill my cannibalism challenge for the month with this film. Ruby, played by Jena Malone, also takes a literal blood bath in Jesse’s remains, and turns on that perfect Malone angry face. Meanwhile, I could have gone without the gratuitous shower scenes that were cut in between takes of the hate bath. Of course, after Jesse’s eaten, the movie goes on for several more painstaking minutes. During that time we see a haunting, beautiful, pointless birth scene (I think?), in which Malone lays naked under a full moon and happily spills some sort of liquid out of some part of her body (it’s not clear, folks); and another model, played by Bella Heathcote, who pukes up an eyeball and commits a modified harakiri, mid photo session. At this point, the viewer starts reviewing the earlier scenes in the film. The levitating figure at the nightclub, the puma in Jesse’s motel room, and a crusty Keanu who likes to shove knives down the throats of girls in their dreams. Why in the world did we need these scenes? How do they factor into the narrative?

I’ll tell you how…Refn wanted to film them, and so he did.

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Why am I here?

I don’t hate this movie, but I’m pretty disappointed. It could have been a stellar ten minute short film. As a feature length production, it just feels kind of pointless.

Challenge fulfilled: Cannibalism

 

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