The Neon Demon (2016) Review

Beauty can be The Beast and not in the post-op Minotaur sense.

The crazy Dane Nicholas Winding Refn, director of Drive, BronsonOnly God Forgives and Valhalla Rising is back and this time he is indulging his inner 16-year-old mean girl with his singular take on the giallo cum Valley of the Dolls, The Neon Demon.

The luminous Elle Fanning portrays Jesse, a midway adolescent nymph made flesh who jetees her way into LA's modelling scene. Upon getting her delicate, milky foot through the door, she is instantly placed upon a pedestal in the predacious, leering meat market known as the fashion industry, much to the understandable chagrin of her fellow models who have had to work to get to where they are.

I believe anybody who has seen any of Refn's movies stepped out of the blessed darkness of the cineplex into the blinding sunlight thinking "So. That happened." and The Neon Demon is no exception. Although tonally imbalanced, perhaps intentionally so, when Refn makes a movie, you can bet your stilettoes you will remember its sharp visual flair. The Neon Demon is a film which condemns the infamous Beauty Culture- the perceived notion of what is aesthetically pleasing about the human form, and how harmful it is on us all. When we think of beauty as personified by a person, who do we think of? Mainly the manufactured celebrity because they are the Pygmalionesque idols we have helped to create. Their bodies come to be our property even though we have absolutely no right to them, we can build them up as easily as we can knock them into the dirt and stomp on their infuriatingly gorgeous faces and dissect their enviable bodies we believe we are entitled to.

Fanning's Jesse is a teen dream who is both naive and incredibly self-aware. When we first see her, she is an innocent and fresh faced sweetheart with a winning smile, floating blonde hair and gleaming blue doe eyes. However, as she travels further into the ether of the fashion industry, she comes to understand the power she has with her looks and even more disturbingly, how to wield them. Jesse is just over halfway between girlhood and womanhood yet she has the attitudes of both mashed into one deceptively ingenue package. In several scenes, Fanning sprawls herself over various objects looking both aware of her sexual power and frighteningly dead, a chic tuberculosian beauty when not prowling through photo-shoots like a panther in an adolescent girl's body.

I've always found Fanning to be a respectable actress and surprisingly, she was one of the better parts of 2014's fetid fountain of dog vomit Maleficent, but here, we see her delve deeper into her reservoir of talent to bring us her interpretation of Eve and Lilith combined into one. On the surface, the LA modelling circle is her Eden, Paradiso, but the more she angers her older, more experienced peers, she discovers she has in fact arrived in an opulent, nightmarish Hell. She can either burn, or she can take control by becoming the mightiest creature of the underworld there ever was and that is what she does. Fanning is fantastic here.

Equally engaging is Jena Malone as make-up artist Ruby with, shall we say, questionable personal habits, Bella Heathcote (channeling a young, malevolent Charlize Theron) as Gigi and Abbey Lee Kershaw as Sarah. All three women pull the viewer further into this disturbing, soul-tainting yet seductive world by revealing the lengths their characters will go to in order to assert their diminishing dominance in an organization which they never controlled. The ugly which runs through the veins of these beauties is unmistakable.

To say The Neon Demon is a social commentary is to state the obvious- it absolutely is and it is utterly ruthless, as it should be. Not only does it condemn the vainglorious condition of Beauty Culture but also the practice of misogyny. Before you angrily type in the comments to crucify me for using that seemingly fashionable (haaaa) word, allow me to assert that while most of the male characters are indeed slimy perverts, cruelty and hatred knows no bounds, however it is the women who contribute just as heavily to this aspect of narrative.

'Misogyny' by broad definition is a hatred and/or fear of women which just so happens to be associated with men, but in actuality, women too can be incredibly misogynistic. At an early age, girls are taught, even demanded by other female peers to be harshly critical of their bodies and views all to fit a mold which society finds attractive and agreeable. Standards are set in an intangible stone tablet and are expected to the followed to the letter because if they are not, multitudes of scorn, disdain and cruelty befall the one who defies it. However, and quite bizzarely, if a woman is indeed incredibly attractive and panders to this doctrine, the very same dissent is placed upon them because their looks become the cause for jealousy and hurtful assumptions are made to her character.

I speak from experience as I was one of those kids who evoked this ridiculous wrath by being short, chubby and a heathen when it came to everything deemed right and cool by my peers and in a sense, I still am, we all are. At the time it meant everything to me, but now with the benefit of retrospect and priority, I realise how stupid the very notion was. However, this behavior perpetuates itself all the way into adulthood. Women's magazines published by women all but order their female readers to dress this, contour that, get a guy with these sexy new moves jam cucumbers up where the sun don't shine. You get the idea.

Internalized misogyny is practiced by both sexes, and it has become so clandestine you could praise its insidious were it not for the fact it has penetrated every aspect of your own personal life. The Neon Demon points the finger at this attitude and doesn't pull its punches despite wearing the gaudy bacchanalian visage it is ripping apart. While Refn has gone on the record saying he made the film as something fun do, he is also cautioning us that if we slavishly submit to shallow social pressure, we in turn will become the very demons which haunt us.

As to be expected of any Refn film, The Neon Demon is a divine treat to the sensory system. Filled to burst with stylish imagery and synergy, from the opening frames to the final moments melds the attractive with the infernal. Additionally, the soundtrack composed by Refn Regular (TM) Cliff Martinez is a throbbing, penetrating ode to dark discotheque as well as a couple of compositions by Refn's son Julian (his The Demon Dance track which was used in the trailer is orgasmic) and a new track by Sia, Waving Goodbye. No exaggeration here when I say this is one of the most delicious motion picture soundtracks I have heard in a while.  

With regards to the tone of the film and what I was saying earlier about it being unbalanced, for the most part The Neon Demon is an unconventional horror arthouse drama similar to Black Swan complete with gruesome allusions to body horror, psychological torment and general unease , but it also houses some tremendously dark humor, especially with its observations of modelling and its absurdity taken to the extreme the likes of Tarantino and Verhoeven (Danes, man) are liable to do. Personally speaking, I didn't find these tonal shifts a detriment, more like a counterweight to the abject horrors taking place on the screen. Yes, the violence is a spectacle of the gruesome, yes there is some sick implications being made involving the characters and the circumstances but lets put it into context; when dealing with the medium of the absurd in theatre and cinema, 100% commitment must be made. If you find yourself cringing one moment and laughing uneasily the next at the inherent ludicrousness of what you are seeing, that is the point. In his 1965 book, Absurd Drama, critic Martin Esslin defined absurdity in theatre like so-

The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it. But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.

While film and stage are different in most technical regards, the idea of bringing to life dramatic absurdity remains the same and The Neon Demon is no exception to this. It is all up to you about how you choose to approach it.

The Neon Demon is an articulate machine of the sensuous, dangerous, preening and scathing, but by the same token, it may not please everyone due to the degree of accessibility Refn's have in general but in that regard, nobody is to blame.
The film has already polarized audiences, with some saying it is yet another strong entry into Refn's résumé with others saying it is a mess but I feel that is exactly the result Mr. Refn has been keen to receive because what better way to create a dialogue than to give us an appetizing glimpse into our own diabolical souls by showing us our own reflections?

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