Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Neon Demon

Style over substance is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in contemporary cinema, but rarely have I seen this phrase used more than when people discuss The Neon Demon. The world is unanimous that Nicolas Winding Refn's latest is gorgeously shot and boasts a killer soundtrack, but the film has been criticized for its lack of plot and character depth. When looked at from this angle it's easy to see why "style over substance" seems an easy phrase to pin to this film, but to expect a layered plot and complex, motivated characters in The Neon Demon is to miss the point entirely. Refn is not attempting a deep film or trying to satirise the fashion industry, he isn't even attempting to create a film that evokes an emotional reaction from the viewer. Here, Refn simply longs to bring the viewer on a neon-drunk journey through the darkest corners of the modelling world in order to create a feeling that could not be experienced anywhere besides a cinema. The film does not favour style over substance, as for Refn these two come hand in hand: it's not so much style over substance, but more substance within the style.

The Neon Demon's plot is so thin that it borders on nonexistent: 16 year old Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to L.A to begin her modelling career, but as her youthful beauty allows her to progress rapidly, a few other models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) slowly begin detesting her for her quick and easy rise to success. One would be forgiven for attempting to unpack this plot further and scour the character motivations for subtext or satire, but this simply is not the case: The Neon Demon does not concern itself with plot. It simply finds a premise and rolls with it, scarcely taking any time to reconsider the ways in which it develops. Jesse as a character lacks the likeability to work as a protagonist, while Gigi and Sarah's intensely growing hatred for her doesn't fully add up when looked at with what the film has given us. But Refn has crafted a film in which this simply does not matter. The plot never exceeds premise status, but I don't care. The characters rarely do much that makes a whole lot of sense, but I don't care. The film grasps you from the first frame (an elongated panning shot of Jesse lying lifelessly on a sofa for a modelling shoot), and it never loses its grip for a heartbeat.

Visually, The Neon Demon is a breathtaking achievement. The neon tinged lighting is a feast for the eyes during the entirety of the film, but it's when Refn pushes this visual framework into more abstract and unconventional territory that the frame truly bursts with splendour. An early sequence involving a show in a nightclub makes use of a flashing red light within a pitch black frame, eerily illuminating faces and bodies one at a time in different parts of the frame. Jesse's first catwalk appearance descends into hallucinogenic hell as she experiences visions of bizarre neon triangles, and ultimately finds herself admiring and kissing her reflection in a purely abstract mirrored prism. The film's cinematography (by Natasha Braier) is superb throughout, but when Braier and Refn let go of normality in its entirety the film becomes something truly magnificent. Refn also uses the film's intricate visuals to form metaphors and create connections that his script refuses to make: when a cougar appears in Jesse's room it's difficult to grasp the purpose of the scene, but some simple set design for Ruby's (Jena Malone) house later in the film adds depth and context to a scene that the viewer has almost forgotten. Refn also distances himself from conventional time passages as scenes shift from dawn to dusk within a matter of minutes, as well as simply jumping from a sunset-infused frame to midnight darkness in a single cut in the middle of a scene.

It's this visual inventiveness that keeps The Neon Demon such an engrossing film to experience. The film's dialogue is mostly basic and refrains from becoming pretentious - certain characters offer pretentiousness, but the film avoids the trap of falling into the same category itself - and a high number of scenes almost feel superfluous within the grand scheme of things. There isn't a whole lot going on behind the visuals, and so Refn needed to find a genre to force this film into for its final act, and he settled on pure, unadulterated horror. The Neon Demon feels intense throughout, it almost teases its horror-esque explosion in every sequence, but when the film finally arrives at act three it's done little to prepare you for what it's about to force you to endure. The Neon Demon pushes the boundaries of even the most extreme age rating certificate in a number of ways; most notably in its visceral approach to sexual horror (a scene set inside a morgue is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon), body horror (a sequence focused on a human eye is purely repulsive), and its willingness to just keep pushing and pushing even after the central premise of the film is no longer at hand. Refn could end his film ten minutes before he does, but that would result in losing the unpredictable and deeply disturbing final act that The Neon Demon so desperately needs in order to feel satisfying. Refn has ignored plot from the offset, and it's a testament to his dedication to this film that he refuses to back down from this.

As previously mentioned, the film's script is simplistic, yet the terrific cast here do a fantastic job of making this scripting seem like much more than the sum of its parts. A tense early sequence in the bathroom of a nightclub between all four leads offers little more than a few fleeting ideas on what sex means in the modelling industry and whether or not lipsticks are named solely after food and sex in order to sell. The wording is basic, but the delivery is sublime. Malone almost holds between every word as Ruby asks Jesse "So which are you, food or sex?", and Abbey Lee's deadpan facial expression throughout the sequence adds layers to her mind frame that the film's script has chosen to ignore. When the film builds to its twisted crescendo, each of the four leads has a part to play, and each actress handles their role admirably. Fanning's depiction of Jesse steals the show: her empty stares into nothingness imply more than words ever could, while her body language effectively portrays Jesse's hesitancy to strip naked during her first professional photo shoot. Refn has spoken in interviews about each of the four leads representing a different form of beauty, and in doing so he asks a lot from his cast, but they deliver by the bucket load. This is where "substance within the style" becomes so apt for the film: we can unpack the visuals to find metaphors and meaning, but the plot itself remains unaffected on the surface.

These various elements - cinematography, visual abstraction, metaphor, simple scripting, quietly effective performances - are all bound together and wrapped up by the film's excellent musical score. Cliff Martinez intricately allows a number of pieces to sound not too dissimilar to nightclub music when heard independently, but when his soundtrack is combined with the film's imagery the tone descends into pure horror. And that is precisely what makes The Neon Demon such terrific cinema: it simply cannot be experienced in any other way. Not every film needs to prioritise plot and character to be a success, and here Refn exploits that fact in ways few directors know how. He has created a sick and twisted film that relentlessly grows more and more unsettling as it continues, but it's combined with visual beauty and a soundtrack that fluctuates in tone depending on the frame it coincides with. This is cinema at its most raw, at its most daring. The film is unlikely to please the parts of us that crave complex characters and thoughtful storytelling, but that's fine. For the remaining parts of us that desire a seductively twisted journey into something much darker, something much more experimental, The Neon Demon is likely to tick every box on the list without even looking like it's trying.

To Summarise: Sick, slick, and superbly crafted, The Neon Demon is a stylish and darkly thrilling experience that masterfully succeeds in everything it sets out to do: shock, confuse, and horrify.

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