Nicolas Winding Refn’s most well-known film, Drive, was rapturously received by critics at its Cannes premiere in 2011. Writing for The Guardian, Xan Brooks lightheartedly observed how after “witness[ing] great art and potent social commentary; the birth of the cosmos and the end of the world,” – referring to other films such as The Tree of Life and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which also competed at Cannes that year – “all we really wanted all along was a scene in which a man gets his head stomped in a lift.” Indeed, one could assume from how Refn won the festival’s award for Best Director that year that Drive’s hyper-stylized violence resonated with many. However, for a director who has made a name for himself by realizing physical brutality beneath sordid neon lights, his latest film, The Neon Demon, is so restrained in its depiction of sexuality that by the time it unleashes a torrent of sexual imagery, we can’t help but be horrified.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an aspiring model and recent arrival in Los Angeles. Living out of a motel in Pasadena, she initially roams the town in search of agency representation; her doe-eyed, adolescent features betray the beguiling innocence of someone new to town. She is in fact only 16 years old, but she keeps this — and her lack of parental consent — as secret as possible. Fanning conveys the earnest naiveté of her age, while concurrently asserting herself in ways that remind us 16 is only two years from adulthood. As her apparent natural beauty and innocent charm quickly make her a coveted face in fashion, Jesse inevitably antagonizes older models who enviously eye her easy success with thinly-veiled contempt. After all, the industry is a zero-sum game: Jesse’s ascent comes at the expense of other models who, for years, have been starving themselves and surgically altering their features.
It is amidst this tension between Jesse and her fellow models that Refn sharply critiques the arduous standards of artificialized beauty imposed on the contemporary female experience. This may seem counterintuitive for a male director who has occasionally been derided for representations of misogyny and, admittedly, the film’s negative attitude toward beauty standards is not original by any means. However, The Neon Demon finds its voice in its original realization of such a thesis: Refn’s distinct visual style is so fiercely compelling that any subject he chooses to tackle is inexorably a visual and sonic luxury. Not merely in terms of the neon-lit cinematography which, in this film, superimposes a Suspiria-esque conspiratorial atmosphere to the cold, unforgiving Los Angeles, but also in how it is edited to burn at riveting, almost-hypnotic pace. Yes, this is a hyperbolic and unsubtle realization of a friendless Los Angeles, evident in how one of the earliest exchanges of dialogue already concretizes that “who you’re fucking” is among the very few things that matter. But Refn here is operating in his element, knowing full well that while his script didactically signals The Neon Demon’s theme, it is his distinct aesthetic that makes that theme felt. Whether it be the romantic yearnings so effectively conjured in Drive by merely combining slow-motion cinematography with the synth-pop of “Under Your Spell,” or the corrupted sexual awakening photographed in The Neon Demon’s oneiric fashion runway sequence, Refn is able to signal a whole range of emotions.
But such an aesthetic on its own would have made the film worth watching only for his devoted fanbase. What makes it universally worthwhile is that it is also arguably Refn’s most humanistic portrait of femininity. Anyone who charges him with misogyny here is mistaking representation for endorsement, an infuriating error made with increasing frequency by a growing number of critics. Jesse is an immensely sympathetic character who is made to strip naked, yet we as audiences are denied the voyeuristic possibility of seeing her unclothed figure. For a film so much about experiencing one’s sexual awakening amidst the most hyper-sexualized city on earth, the only times that audiences are shown glimpses of nudity are meant to cause revulsion and shock, almost as if Refn himself were saying: “Disappointed with the lack of nudity? Here’s some nudity for you.” Through characters like the cantankerous motel owner played by Keanu Reeves, who gleefully salivates over a 13-year-old motel resident as being “some real Lolita shit,” Refn makes the point that his directorial restraint is for a purpose.
However, The Neon Demon is admittedly burdened by its fair share of dumb directorial decisions. As stated, while I may be more forgiving of Refn’s clunky writing, others may find it inexcusable. But most frustratingly, the film’s total foray into body horror in the final chapter, after Jesse falls into a swimming pool, undermines what was, until then, a sophisticated balancing act between the unsettling and the believable: I was disappointed by how Refn discards a delicately-constructed atmosphere just so that he could finally play with all the blood he wanted in the last 15 minutes. Furthermore, while the film’s most striking scenes are either dreams or are photographed with the intended impenetrability of a dream, their easily-readable symbolism preclude them from reverberating in your mind for long, unlike, say, the Stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Yet in spite of this, The Neon Demon ultimately succeeds. Here we witness Refn’s trademark visuals, compellingly paced to realize tensely-restrained scenes. While he may not have anything thematically original to add to discussions of feminine sexuality, what he does add is a film that is, for most of its runtime, a stylish, yet visceral criticism of the self-destructive, contemporary deification of beauty as “the only thing.”
Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.