The Neon Demon (2016)
“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing”, says Roberto Sarno in “The Neon Demon”. Director of this movie, Nicolas Winding Refn, seems to have taken this statement close to heart, and crafted a film where visual beauty is, indeed, the only thing worth paying any attention to, seemingly forgetting that, in film-making, visual representation is never the only thing that counts. Refn (also director behind critically-acclaimed “Drive” (2011)) is now here also the writer, and his story is about Jesse (Elle Fanning), an underage aspiring model, who comes to LA to try her luck in show-business. After gaining initial success, Jesse realises that the climb to the top is thornier than she had previously imagined it to be, especially when a group of fellow models start to covet her natural attributes and instantaneous success. Despite its outstanding visual effects and a promising premise, “The Neon Demon” is preposterous and misguided, that kind of a film which one can easily stop watching half way through, never really caring about the ending.
The beginning of “The Neon Demon” is very promising, and even “strong”. The opening sequence is Jesse’s photo-shoot where she lies “bleeding” on the sofa. The audience hears the cool soundtrack, and the visuals are stunning: the colours (especially blue and red) are distinctive and rich, and all says that this is an art film with the message. The story, although unoriginal, is also interesting. Here, we have a young girl, barely sixteen years of age, all sweetness, innocence and vulnerability, arriving to LA, a city of dreams, but also of hidden traps and illusions. Jesse soon befriends a make-up artist and signs up with a modelling agency. However, there seems to be a high price to pay for her initial “stardom”. Jesse has to endure a very uncomfortable photo-shoot, direct and indirect bullying “at work” by fellow jealous models, mistreatment at the hands of a sexually-perverted landlord and the unhealthy obsession of a new “boss”. The females she meets want to be her, and the males she meets want to be with her. Jesse must have a “thick” skin to survive in such an environment. The film’s dialogue is also nicely written, and most of it is very frank. For example, when Jesse is “interrogated” in the bathroom by the “models”, one says: “You must have a boyfriend,” and another carries on: “All she really wants to know is, who are you f***ing? Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? A pretty new girl walks into a room, everyone’s head turns, looks her up and down, wondering, “who is she f***ing? “Who could she f***? “And how high can she climb, and is it higher than me?”
However, very quick into “The Neon Demon”, the story spirals out of control, becoming one incoherent and dangerously-close-to-boredom flick. The plot becomes uneven, all the thought-provoking elements, such as hidden menaces, strangely disappear, and an underwhelming and tasteless ending is already in sight. The film’s intention to expose the dark side of the show-business, such as its vanity and superficiality, is also unsuccessful. The power of this message gets lost along the way, because the director is too busy showcasing the visual effects, and lets go of the plot’s focus altogether. This is a really missed opportunity, because the film had the potential to be good. Refn confessed that he and his film crew did not quite know where they would eventually end up with this film, and their confusion clearly shows. After all, failure to plan is planning to fail. Besides, sadly, Nicolas Winding Refn is not David Lynch, who could conjure up a seemingly nonsensical plot, threw symbolism here and there, and not only get away with it, but produce a master-class of a film. It is embarrassing and painful to watch Refn’s unfounded self-confidence in “The Neon Demon”. Refn may have directed critically-acclaimed “Drive”, but that film was not written by him.
In terms of plot originality, “The Neon Demon” also scores relatively low, borrowing heavily from other films and ideas. The theme of “an LA dream going disastrously wrong” has been done to death, but Refn also thinks it is a good idea to combine some aspects of “Mulholland Drive” (2001) and “Suspiria” (1977) with, maybe, a touch of “Black Swan” (2010) to produce his own “cocktail” of a movie. The result is a film that, as it progresses, looks more like a parody, rather than a “stand-alone” flick. Moreover, contrary to some opinion, I do not believe that the problems with “The Neon Demon” have anything to do with its “controversial” material or its portrayals of extremity and gore. There are films out there that contain graphic material, and concern controversial topics, but they are still good, such as Noe’s “Irreversible” (2002) and Ducournau’s “Raw” (2016).
“The Neon Demon”’s characters and their development are bound to leave anyone puzzled. It is not that there is a “healthy” aura of mystery about them; it is rather that they are so poorly-written, it is very difficult to sympathise or even dislike them. Indifference is what is left to feel. For example, at first, Jesse comes off as this innocent girl: pure, vulnerable, and unsure of the future and her talent. However, she is pretty bold in saying that she wants to make money out of her “pretty face”; does not mind doing “naked” photo-shoots; and, sometimes, acts on the same level as those “perfect”, “hard-core” models she is supposed to counteract with, being plainly vain and prepared to do anything for her “break”. Moreover, later, Jesse says: “I am dangerous”, all of sudden, just to make the audience even more confused. On that basis and on many others, it is hard to feel for Jesse or her fate, and the fact that there is no emotional connection established with the audience at all does not help. Is Jessie really a wolf in sheep’s clothing? The audience never finds out. Also, apparently, Refn meant character Gigi, a model, to represent “artificial beauty”, who dismisses Jesse as a “natural beauty”; character Sarah to represent the one coveting Jesse’s “purity” and wanting to be her; and character Ruby to represent the one admiring Jesse, and instead of wanting to be her, wanting to be with her. Although this can be somewhat guessed, the audience never sees the picture the way Refn sees it. When the audience sees three girls pouncing on Jesse, they do not see a symbolic trio who represent different degrees of vanity and desire, but just three girls obsessed with theirs and others’ looks and b***ing about the fourth. As Refn is not interested in character development, he ends up “exploiting” his picture to showcase its visual beauty the way Jesse is exploited in the film.
No one can deny the beauty of Refn’s film or the visual splendour of most of his shots, but all that adds little to the merit of the picture. The film’s plot is illogical and confused, the characters are underdeveloped, puzzling and unsympathetic, and the ending is ridiculous and generally poor. Refn may pass for a decent art director, but he proves to be a hopeless writer. Even if the audience can forgive many plot defects and boredom, “The Neon Demon” still comes off as pretentious and self-indulgent. The audience may have built their hopes in the beginning, but their stoic patience is never rewarded – if anything, Refn throws at them one crazy scene after another, never sparing them any of his nonsense. 4/10