Is Nicolas Winding Refn the closest thing we have to a competent parody filmmaker in the 21st century? Granted, his last two films – Drive and Only God Forgives – don’t initially read as parodic, what with the smothering self-seriousness and the complete lack of laughs. Yet each operates as a carefully-calibrated deconstruction of genres already exaggerated to the point of self-parody, filtering familiar plotlines of betrayal and solitude and revenge through breathtakingly overwrought mises en scène. These films succeed because of their refusal to flinch, to acknowledge their ridiculousness with flashes of self-reflexivity; the icon of Hollywood masculinity hollowed out into a corpse-icon worthy of ridicule and respect all at once.
The Neon Demon feels like a necessary evolution of that style, shifting its gears to the prevalent objectification of women – specifically within the fashion industry, though its afterimages resonate through pretty much any example of mainstream media. The feminine grotesque at the heart of Refn’s latest is Elle Fanning’s Jesse, an angelic young girl recruited and reshaped by high fashion. She’s a naïf and a star, youthful and ageless: a shaky, utterly unbelievable encapsulation of modern society’s paradoxical expectations of women.
The fashion world that consumes her – arch, affectless, artificial – is supposed to read as unbelievable too. But the fashion world is so absurd that it’s practically immune to parody, and scenes of Fanning lining up alongside dozens of other identical blonde women, clad only in beige underwear, reads as paedophilic and sinister but never anything but authentic. Refn’s aversion to overt humour is a weakness here; I suspect the only way to effectively satirise the overriding aestheticism of high fashion is to resort to crude comedy (see: Zoolander), a path the director’s simply unable to traverse.
It doesn’t help that the ideas are so facile. The pretty vacancy at the core of Refn’s cinema is forgivable within the genre context of his earlier films; we can extrapolate his empty stylism into meaning through the way he rhymes with cinematic history. But his approach here – all sweeping gestures, immaculate images, Bava-esque lighting at once sterile and surreal – is too simpatico with the medium he’s mocking. Yes, Nicolas, we understand that barely-pubescent women are eroticised, that fashion forwards an impossible ideal of feminity: these are not revelations to anyone who’s consumed more than a teaspoon of contemporary culture.
No surprise, then, that The Neon Demon has proved so divisive. It’s the rare film that’s attracted five star and one star reviews, with respectable critics positioned on either side of the divide. Those wanting to decry it for its insipid ideas cloaked in overwrought aesthetics have plenty of evidence to make their case; those wanting to celebrate it as a considered dissection of the female image can easily extrapolate small moments into crystalline examples of unappreciated genius.
Frankly, I agree with neither side. Too often, I found myself bored by the film’s opening hour or so, underwhelmed by its blunt commentary. But its images are hypnotic, impossible to dismiss entirely. Upon reflection, what the first hour or so needs is more grit, less distance from Refn’s rougher roots. For a film that parades gorgeous models around in next to nothing, it feels too polite, too elegant, too indebted to high fashion’s attempts to mask its masturbatory nonsense as high culture. I don’t want to note “oh this kind of gross” watching young women parade before skeevy older men; I want to feel repulsed or aroused or both at once, rather than this polished sense of distance from the proceedings.
Thankfully, The Neon Demon’s final act delivers on these desires. The already shaky linearity of the film dissolves into a series of increasingly violent, sexualised scenes: murder and necrophilia and cannibalism figure prominently. The ideas are no less banal, but they’re elevated by the heightened horror tone, at once indebted to Jesus Franco and Dario Argento. As Refn’s perfect images are plastered with blood and gore and dangling eyeballs, the film’s vacancy is filled with something primal, something true and – most importantly – something silly, puncturing the overriding aura of solemnity. Not a masterpiece, not a disaster, but definitely memorable.