Nicolas Winding Refn, at the Q&A session following a preview of ‘The Neon Demon’ at Manchester’s HOME cinema, told the audience that the script always comes first when he makes a film. He never storyboards his shots and he never plans his imagery. Refn, so he claims, likes to achieve this spontaneously when he is on set. Respectfully, it is hard to believe the Danish auteur is telling the truth.
The script for ‘The Neon Demon’ is barely existent following a 16-year-old aspiring model Jessie, played by Elle Fanning (easily the best thing about the movie), as she becomes increasingly narcissistic in the vapid and sinister Los Angeles fashion industry. What little of it there is exists simply as a mannequin on which Refn can drape his aesthetic. It was revealing that in the Q&A, the writer and director was asked numerous questions about the content of the film, and he was often left floundering. Was ‘The Neon Demon’ a satire of Hollywood? Not exactly. The fashion industry? Hard to say. The best he could come up with was that ‘The Neon Demon’ explored the idea of being a beautiful 16-year-old girl through the prism of the horror genre.
This will hardly dissuade Nicolas Winding Refn fans. Many cinema-goers admire the ‘Drive’ and ‘Bronson’ director purely for his aesthetic and ‘The Neon’ Demon is possibly the purest expression of his vision so far. In a resounding and quite admirable “fuck off” to his critics, Refn hasn’t compromised on his hallmarks but instead doubles down of them. It is wall-to-wall with neon colours, tracking shots, slow motion, surrealism and shocking images bolstered, of course, by the pulsating sounds of Cliff Martinez’s score.
There are a handful of remarkable moments. Elle Fanning dancing at a viewing point in the Hollywood hills with the foggy LA sunset behind her is absolutely stunning. So, too, is a brief moment when she stands with a photographer engulfed by the white wall behind her as if she has fallen into an abyss. But are his images impressive enough to carry a film alone? No. Most of the time, the lavish attention to detail juxtaposed with grotesquery is like Alejandro Jodorowsky making a perfume advert, or Dario Argento shooting a short film for Vogue.
Meanwhile, Refn’s attempts to deliberately provoke are so unwarranted they are almost laughable. The film’s most controversial sequence involves Jena Malone (easily the second-best thing about the movie) performing a homosexual act with a corpse at the morgue during her part-time job. It is meant to shock, but what it instead inspires is confusion. Why does she work part-time in a morgue? Surely a make-up artist in the fashion industry earns a decent enough wage to not have to moonlight doing make-up for corpses. Do make-up artists even do that? Was this idea conceived just to feature this scene? Was her character’s homosexuality, introduced just one scene earlier, relevant solely for the purposes of this moment too? Like most of the film, it is striking but falls apart under any scrutiny or attempts to extract a subtext. It is shallow filmmaking.
Accusations of style trumping substance have followed Nicolas Winding Refn throughout most of his career. This is hardly a novel criticism of the filmmaker’s work. However, never before – even with the hugely divisive ‘Only God Forgives’ – has Refn showed such a disinterest in storytelling as he does with ‘The Neon Demon’. So concerned is he with the look of each individual shot that he forgets the power they have to communicate ideas, emotions or mysteries that carry a narrative from point A to point B. Refn does create a number of memorable images, but he certainly doesn’t understand them.
‘The Neon Demon’ opens in cinemas across the UK on July 8th 2016.