Many of the great American films of the past few decades – Schrader’s The Canyons, De Palma’s Passion, Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, and Verhoeven’s Showgirls (which seems to serve as Refn’s ur-text here, the same way Santa Sagre did for Only God Forgives) have spun brilliant critiques of superficiality by themselves, embracing the language of superficiality so brazenly that they cause the viewer to reflect on the images of advertising and trash cinema, in the process speaking volumes about the particular cultures and values they’re taking aim at.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest feature, The Neon Demon, attempts to accomplish something similar – crafting a critique of the modelling industry and high fashion aesthetics through images which themselves resemble the glossy prettiness of Vogue shoots and perfume commercials. Yet, just with his painfully ill-conceived, Jodorowsky-aping Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon is undone by the inanity of its central ideas. Credit where credit’s due: Refn at least has a sense of humour about his own pomposity. The opening credits scrawl over an undulating piece of delicate fabric (perhaps a coat or a handbag), at the bottom of which the initials “NWR” are written in the style of a fashion logo – a clear acknowledgement and middle finger to the critics who claim that Refn is only interested in surfaces. It’s surely the funniest director credit sine The Bling Ring opened with Sofia Coppola’s name layered atop a bracelet reading “Rich Bitch”.
“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”, says a pompous fashion designer to Jessie’s boyfriend Dean roughly halfway into the film, in one of the many heavy-handed dialectical dialogues. The wide-eyed innocent Dean, you see, has had the audacity to suggest that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. The response is a quote that self-reflexively mocks the film’s aesthetic project, while simultaneously winking at the film’s detractors – and Refn is certainly self-aware enough to pre-empt such criticisms. And, admittedly, it seems at first like Refn has found the perfect subject matter for his particular visual preoccupations.
Since the start of his career, Refn has been working towards an opulent, delicately upholstered style that treats each composition as a hermetically sealed, carefully orchestrated tableaux. Most cuts in Refn films are divided along the 90 or 180 degree lines (as opposed to the more favoured 45 degree), which makes his edits seem jarring and creates a boxy sense of on-screen space. Compositions tend to be organized cleanly along horizontal planes of action, with characters rarely moving from background to foreground or vice versa. The unusual use of centred images is notable, as is the high-contrast colour palette, setting harsh reds and purples against deep blacks and brows, with few shades in between.
If The Neon Demon is, in outline, no more ridiculous than Showgirls’ satirical cautionary tale of exploitation, female pride and toxic competitiveness set within the lowest rungs of the entertainment industry, it crucially lacks the rigorous self-reflection and viewer implication of Paul Verhoeven’s film maudit. Where Verhoeven strives to emphasise the lure of surfaces, and demonstrate how these appealing surfaces encourage others to chase them, Refn takes the easy route of observing the corruption from a cold remove; whereas Verhoeven examines how the structures of Hollywood underdog tales themselves stir the same feelings of entitlement that fuel his characters, Refn settles for repetitively hammering in the same few points.
There are, admittedly, a few striking sequences: Jesse wandering to the end of a catwalk for the first time in a darkened room, lit only by a pyramid of fluorescent lights, before reaching the end and kissing her reflection in a Thaumaturgic Triangular mirror, paradoxically conflating Jesse’s self-actualization as a performer with a regression into narcissism; an already infamous scene in which a make-up artist who works with both live and dead models, feels up a corpse while pretending that it’s a model she has an unrequited crush on, a neat expression of how models can be seen as blank slates the observer can project their own fantasies and insecurities onto. Yet these are a few bright spots in a narrative that otherwise relies too heavily on lazy clichés – a sleazy photographer who uses his reputation as a way to seduce young girls (It’s telling of Refn’s reactionary mentality that every photographer in the film is male, and they’re portrayed as being either comically effeminate or lecherous creeps); the young naïf Jesse facing off against bitter senior models who feel that their exploration date is fast approaching- the idea of bathing in blood to secure eternal beauty.
Like similarly minded provocateurs such as Kim Ki-duk and Park-Chan Wook, Refn has a habit of piling up increasingly outlandish atrocities, not truly exploring the sociological conditions that breed such societal ills or even fully immersing his viewers in the kinetic effects, but instead merely fetishizing the resulting pain and humiliation (in addition to the aforementioned necrophilia scene, Refn’s narrative features cannibalism, self-mutilation, violent sexual assault and paedophilia, among other family favourites). As Jesse becomes the target of aggressive envy by her fellow models and menacing scrutiny by her male photographers, Refn doubles down on horrific imagery, but the images themselves remain so obvious in their intentions and hermetically sealed in their packaging that they fail to leave much of an impression.
Refn’s filmmaking lacks the genuine moral enquiry of a Gaspar Noe or the savvy social satire of an Eli Roth, who repeatedly criticizes the hypocrisies of neo-liberalism and Western complacency by implicating the relatively low-key misdeeds of the leads he initially sets up as audience surrogates. Think of last year’s vastly underrated The Green Inferno, a team of young neo-liberals who travel to the rainforest in a highly publicized attempt to protect the rights of the native people, only to quickly discover how deeply they’ve internalized the entitlement and bourgeois attitudes of the conservatives they claim to despise.
Unfortunately, there are no such clever ironies in The Neon Demon, whose critique of the modelling industry never reaches beyond shallow clichés: that it’s a mileu that pits women against each other to get ahead; that the marketplace places unrealistic demands on its workers and dismisses them at a certain – and not even particularly advanced – age; and that it values surface beauty over spiritual worth. In attempting to subvert the values of the fashion industry, Refn only perpetuates some of the oldest and most heinous misconceptions of it. In his eyes, models are passive subjects who simply stand still and act as mannequins for the various stylists, as opposed to being agents who collaborate with other creatives in order to compose an image; photographers (and it’s revealing of Refn’s essentially reactionary mentality that in The Neon Demon they’re all male) primarily use their position as a way to act out and justify their most sadistic impulses; and models play games of dress-up purely to advance their career and mould themselves to appeal to the perspectives of the men in power, rather than seeing their construction of their own image as a legitimate form of creative expression.