If there is one word to describe Refn’s films, that word would probably be a synonym for “indulgence.” From his early crime-grit violent escapades of Pusher and Bleeder, to the biopic Bronson and his later period work, each film carries in it a love for excess. This excess isn’t even of gore or violence—these are means to his ends—this excess is of fundamental sensations. Refn seeks to build the world that he lives in around the viewers and keep them there until long after they’ve left the movie theatre and all the colors, aesthetics, driving synthesized scores, and landscapes have faded from recent memory.
So it is with The Neon Demon, Refn’s newest feature that first debuted at Cannes this year to divisive, if somewhat lackluster, reviews. The somewhat muted hubbub at its debut revealed more about the taste of its audiences than it did about the film itself; reviews tended to be split across disagreements over taste rather than of substance. The positive reviews read like negative ones, focusing on excesses, the overabundance of stylistic flourishes over substantive plot mechanics, and the idolization of the female body; the negative reviews, likewise, read more like positive ones, with reviewers exasperatedly and angrily spewing out how easily it got under their respective skins. The vitriolic responses from the critics are, if nothing else, guarantors of some level of success.
The film stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, an attractive underage model with no discernable past who travels to Los Angeles in order to make it big in the modeling industry. Encouraged to lie about her age, she breaks in through the favors of enamored photographers and designers, and she catches the eye of a fellow models and a make-up artist. Meanwhile, her living situation and her distant, new relationship with her almost-boyfriend keep pressures of survival on her. As her descent into the hellish landscape of the Los Angeles modeling industry approaches its lowest point, the glamour and glitz of her success take their toll on whatever moral compass she’d had before she arrived in the city, and the characters around her resemble demons more and more with each passing scene.
Such a passing summary reveals all the clichés to be found in this movie: a young girl out of her depths that arrives in a land filled with horrors, mixed with a theme of power and the culture of narcissism corrupting an otherwise innocent nymphet. The film doesn’t really go off the deep end until the last twenty minutes or so, wherein Jesse herself is removed from the narrative and the story is laid bare as what it’s fundamentally about—the pure distilled obsession with image.
The Neon Demon’s characters are all depicted exactly as their environments are. They are half-page or, sometimes, centerfold spreads in magazines, no thicker than the pages of Glamour and intended to be no more memorable than the half-second cuts of music video montages. The story is no more an ode to these models than it is really a story about them; it’s a condemnation of the entire system to a degree and belligerence worthy of Jonathan Edwards. Obviously, its narrative depicts the hollow and facile obsession with beauty—using the modeling industry makes this interpretation unavoidable. And obviously, it seems to draw distinctions between the artificial beauty of the plastic surgery addicts and those with some sort of innate glow—which, again, using the modeling industry, makes this also unavoidable. And yet the superficiality of beauty is vividly defined at every level in the film; the attitudes of the characters, the content of the narrative, and the visual aesthetics themselves all underline this. There is nothing greater to the equation of beauty, says The Neon Demon, than what you can see and touch and feel. It’s all basically subjective, but, it winks, come on. You know it when you see it.
Which is where the title comes in. Who—or what—is the Neon Demon? Refn’s bemused answer would be little more than a succinct and confusing explanation of Freudian symbolism, assuming he didn’t just remark that he thought it sounded cool. And yet, the demon in the title alludes to something greater than Man, something out there in the world and unknown, but real, if elusive. Not, certainly, some kind of passing feeling or vague subjective feeling, but demoniac. Possessive.
Is it power? Lust? Narcissism? Is it greed for the glamor and attention? That’s all too easy. Her elevation above the other models, the angelic imagery, the associations of feral cats with her decline, and the ever-present glare of mirrors and reflective surfaces indicate Jesse’s pathological obsessions are things greater than what can be simply summarized as a corruption of an innocent girl. For one thing, Jesse was never depicted as innocent in the first place. The first shot of the film reveals her pale body sprawled on a couch with her throat cut; the flashes of cameras reveal that it’s all a photoshoot for some amateur photographer. Innocent girls don’t model for that sort of thing. In addition, Jesse alludes to her mother calling her dangerous, yet her parents are almost entirely unspoken of during the whole film. She claims adamantly also that she isn’t helpless. And she even braces herself against the wall of her motel to listen to an unseen young girl-neighbor be viciously assaulted and raped, possibly to death. Where the other characters can be summed up by their motivations, Jesse’s remains a mystery. Jesse remains someone for whom the mirror reflects an image disconnected from the substance that fills her body.
The last shot of the film depicts a beach, a barren landscape, and inhospitable mountains in the distance; no shred of greenery or life, no invitation of settlement, no semblance of a civilization or the mark of human permanence. This is the land that Los Angeles is built on: sea and desert, in the shadow of mountains. The entirety of one of the richest cities in the US resides on foundations upon which only the barest of subsistence-living insects survive. These are the bones beneath LA’s neon lights, mansions, dirty motels, fashion shows, auditions, expensive restaurants, green-energy bumper stickers, trolleys and discos: emptiness and dust that will blow back in again after the dream or nightmare of modernity’s self-indulgence finally passes away.
There’s a joke online that says, perhaps half-seriously, that Refn made Only God Forgives because he wanted to go to Thailand to buy action figures. Similarly, he is supposed to have made The Neon Demon in LA purely because his wife wanted to go to LA. So if you’re in Thailand, how do you make a movie about Thailand? Naturally, you make Only God Forgives, a film that captures the brutality and alien hostility of a world in which modern amenities like moral credit lines are forsaken for hard policing and familial nepotism.
So how do you make a movie about LA?
You make The Neon Demon.