Lee checks out “The Neon Demon”, an arthouse-horror film by Nicholas Winding Refn. More arthouse in 2016, huzzah!
Expectation of cinema demands the form not simply be a collection of images. This seems strange when considering film as an artform; surely moving pictures are just the evolution of the stationary picture? Very few would look into the works of Monet or Picasso or Dali and decry them as shallow for being founded on aesthetics, yet when it comes to a collection of pictures put together, we expect more in terms of narrative and cohesion. The evolution of the visual arts needs to feel like an evolution; we need to see more and feel more and have more given to us, or it has failed to thoughtfully explore the medium.
“The Neon Demon” is a shallow movie, both on purpose and perhaps at times unintentionally, not that we can distinguish easily which parts are which nor detract from one because of the other. Nicholas Winding Refn, now the glossy figurehead of his own movies rather than the crafter of such, seemed intent to explore one very specific idea, that of aesthetics on the viewer, from as many angles as possible and he does so well, if at the cost of average viewer attention (perhaps one angle he didn’t think about, but he probably did).
Posited as a snob film for film snobs (because what else could it be), Refn (helped with writing by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) crafts the most basic story in human history; Jesse follows her dreams and becomes a model, with a not-too-shocking horror twist. We explore her first couple of shoots, her interactions with other models, her overnight climb to the top, her relationships with those around her and her inevitable downfall; it’s the Godfather films on fast-forward, except about models and set in Los Angeles.
The Biblical simplicity of the story is matched in its representation of the modelling profession (cut-throat, corrupt and thin-skinned), the unassuming camerawork (no real spectacle here; one prominent dolly shot and a mix of fast-edits for fantasy and slow holds for the remainder) and the basic dialogue (one or two sweeping statements to pepper up what is mostly slow, thoughtless exchanges). Everything is skin deep, and it matches the narrative perfectly.
There are excesses: a few twists on the depravity of those affected by imagery, a recurring wild cat symbolism which I’m sure means something important to somebody, perhaps wild cat enthusiasts. We delve into the act of modelling, with its swirling, distorted, pulsing mesh of splendour and terror; we see the politics and the seedy unbelly, staring into the eyes of the desperate and twisted souls who abuse the system before latching onto the more desperate and more twisted souls who attempt to scale it.
It manages to build and maintain its tension even when we can predict what’s coming, and that’s in large part down to the splendid soundtrack from Cliff Martinez. Rumbling and growling under the dark and twinkling and sparkling over the light, there’s rarely any middle ground, often simple, vacuous, vapid excesses and it perfectly complements the feel of the piece.
Cinematography makes even the still and peaceful feel like a winding punch, and the hits stick even when tension is tenuous at best. After all, the lives of shallow people in a shallow world obsessed with shallow things leaves little to be invested in, and as Refn plays with the imagery of the Moon, we are asked to consider ourselves an all-seeing eye to the drama and perhaps reflect on our place in it all. It’s affecting, somewhat, but it doesn’t drive us to delve too deep. Maybe that’s part of the commentary Refn wants to make: we’ll never budge. The beauty of a beauty film is that it can make discussion out of anything if it wants, even the lack of discussion, and call it intentional.
Aesthetically, we’re looking at a gorgeous movie, and one that even comments on how that’s the message. Those uninterested in the story can still take away the visuals and not trouble their heads about it, and then we’re that damn Moon again and we’ve let ourselves down once more. Performances are wonderful, and why shouldn’t they be, and the ending is a real treat even if it comes a little late in the game as it nears the two hour mark.
It’s all very clever, especially if this was never the intention at all and it has fooled us to think it has some shallow depth to it. Commentary and discussion over time will go deep here, and that’s the hallmark of a great art piece, even if it divides us as it must. We’ll learn more from repeated watches, and mull in an endless cycle and we can appreciate this is a well-rounded use of cleverness; a complete message made of a million tiny words and pictures.
On a personal taste level though (and that’s the only part I get a say in, really), I wish I had loved it more. I’ve fallen for aesthetics before, what stopped it all this time? Maybe it’s just too darn clever, lacking that earnest nature that elevates a piece as a real labour of love. Nothing is as shallow and feckless as unabashed adoration, and if this very particular movie can’t inspire that in me, then I feel, on some level, it has failed. This is a labour of class, made with intention by filmmakers who are incredibly competent, and should be appreciated as such.
It goes without saying that, if the above appeals, this is a must-see. Don’t let my petty heart stop you.