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: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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