Still from The Neon Demon.
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Is Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent The Neon Demon brilliant, degrading, or both?

“Women would kill to look like this.

“When I was a kid, I would sneak out onto the roof at night. I thought the moon looked like a big, round eye.” Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, is littered with mirrors, cameras, and eyes lingering where they shouldn’t be – obsessed with the act of seeing (which was also the title of Refn’s 2015 book of vintage film posters). It follows young model Jesse (the ridiculously beautiful Elle Fanning) as she tries to break the fashion scene in Los Angeles, meeting two brittle models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), and a mysterious make-up artist, Ruby (a quietly menacing Jena Malone).

Throughout, Jesse is constantly positioned as an object, both to the characters within the film, and to the audience. In one scene, she faints, falling gently to the floor with a bouquet of roses in hand, looking more pure and perfect than any renaissance painting of Ophelia, and we devour it with as much fervour as any of the photographers staring hungrily at her on set. No wonder she imagines even the planets above her to be staring at her from the sky.

But as much as The Neon Demon is shameless in mimicking the conditions of the fashion world it critiques, it’s also deeply interested in the experience of being looked at. Jesse continues: “And I would look up and say, ‘Do you see me?’”

In this scene, Jesse professes to be hyperaware of the experience of being watched. Even as she does so, she seems to deliberately present herself as a fantasy object for her latest audience, traipsing around in soft pink, emphasising her youth, speaking with exaggerated naivety (“In Georgia, the sky is also this big”), painting an image of herself as a young girl sleeping softly beneath pale moonlight. I’m just a small town girl, living in a lonely world. The lights of LA twinkle behind her like a movie set. The young man watches from the hood of his car like he’s at a drive-in cinema.

At times like this, you could think The Neon Demon is a subtle, sensitive exploration of the male gaze, and the tricky relationship between object and subject. But then a river of bright red blood will spray across the scene as a woman is attacked in front of you – or someone will fuck a corpse.

Of course, this is how Refn wants this film to function. He teases his audience into leaning forward in their seats to look for the moral message he’s hinting at, before confounding them with unadulterated, hammy horror. The marriage of these two mindsets can feel disjointed. Fans of arthouse horror may find the bloody action takes too long to arrive, audience members looking for a modern morality tale or fairytale like The Valley of the Dolls or Black Swan may be left unsatisfied by the film’s resolution: while The Neon Demon has all the component parts to be the Black Swan of modelling (they share, amongst other things, a deeply paranoid atmosphere, compelling protagonists thirsty for the limelight, a vague pathologisation of lesbianism, even nods to the dangers of self-obsession via shards of mirror violently inserted into bodies), instead of opting for a logical conclusion, it tips over into ridiculous anarchy. Fans of Nicholas Winding Refn will, obviously, be delighted.

Like Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette or The Bling Ring, The Neon Demon could easily be accused of reproducing (even glamourising) the culture it condemns, or of simply being a case of “style over substance”. But that criticism doesn’t quite land, because, like so many of the other directors before him who have faced it, style is central to the substance of Refn’s work. You cannot strip away the pulsating score, unsettling lighting (the world slips in and out of night and day in patterns that feel out of step with nature), surreal aesthetics or any other of the film’s superficial elements. James Turrell-esque triangles of light take us inside Jesse’s psyche, colours associated with specific characters alert us to their hidden motives, the use of a static camera and deliberately pictoral cropping forces scenes to function like fashion editorials. Like the make-up artist at the film’s centre, the film communicates through these cosmetic touches.

“I’m not sure about the make-up this year,” says Gigi at a runway fashion show, gazing at the dark bruises of blue eyeshadow and dripping red lips in her reflection. There is a steadily building relationship between violence and make-up in this film: from the barbed comments between the women in a bathroom as they paint Jesse with purple lipstick to the triumphantly obvious fake blood dripping from Jesse’s neck that opens the film. In her essay The Wound in the Face, Angela Carter wrote, “To do up your eyes so that they look like self-inflicted wounds is to wear on your face the evidence of the violence your environment inflicts on you.”

“I know what I look like,” Jesse says at this film’s climax. “What’s wrong with that, anyway? Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, praying that one day they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.”

Of course, there is something uncomfortable in the way this film aesthetically explores structural violence through women’s bodies. Doesn’t Refn exploit his characters a little too enthusiastically? The promotional still of Refn as creator (a figure the film itself perhaps mocks in Alessandro Nivola’s pretentious fashion designer) sat proudly by an artistically limp Fanning still creeps me out, even if that’s exactly what Refn wants me to feel.

We pour over image after image of Jesse either playing dead, asleep, or actually unconscious, all the while being told that she’s “not as innocent” as she looks, that she wants to be looked at this way, that to her, “It’s everything,” – before she is thrown to the wolves. Is that nuance, or misogyny? We hear Jesse gag repeatedly as a knife is slowly pushed deeper and deeper into her throat. Of course, this is deliberately unpleasant – does that intent elevate it? Women are the main practitioners of violence here – is that subversive and freeing, or just sexist?

Much has been made about the so-called “shock factor” of Refn’s latest film. The Daily Mail ran no less than three outraged headlines on the movie (including the question, “Has cinema ever been so depraved and the censors so amoral?”) with many reviewers labelling it “deliberately provocative”. But in terms of sheer violent spectacle, there is little here that is truly shocking: bloody murder, rape and even necrophilia are anticipated staples of horror. So why the fuss? Refn’s poster book reveals his interest in repackaging sex and violence in order to present it to a new audience – as he said on the book’s release, he “wanted to make the most expensive poster book ever produced” out of cheap and obscure film posters. (“The Neon Demon,” Refn adds, could be “a great cover for a fetish magazine.”) To what extent does the arthouse wrapping of this movie alter the dynamics of the violence at its heart?

Ultimately, questions like this become futile in the face of Refn’s deliberately absurd final sequence, which takes quips about the dog-eat-dog world of fashion to gory extremes. When paired with the film's spiky script, these moments can leave The Neon Demon feeling like full-blown satire, with more in common with Absolutely Fabulous (in the new film, Patsy injects herself with botox without blinking, and sings the praises of fetus blood) than high culture. At times it feels like Refn is daring his audience to take his work seriously. I’m still deciding how far I do.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.