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13 July 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 10:29am

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

“Women would kill to look like this.”

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“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.

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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.”

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“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.