The Neon Demon and the aesthetic talent of Nicolas Winding Refn

The Neon Demon is one of the more interesting movies to be released this year. The film is about a young woman who comes to Los Angeles to work as a model. She soon finds that the industry is harsh and competitive and that Hollywood is a strange world to navigate.

The film is the most recent movie from Nicolas Winding Refn. In recent years he has directed the films Drive and Only God Forgives as well as this newest effort. His work combines exquisite imagery and style with a sense of unease and a dark ice-cold mood. These three films all have a similar style and feel like Refn has found a consistent tone as an artist.

Refn’s recent work is very striking and has featured beautiful visuals and glamour. Some critics have dismissed the films as the storytelling isn’t strong enough but they are not getting the raison d’etre of the work. Sometimes in cinema to have beautiful images is enough. A strong atmosphere, an evocative mood, a well-chosen image is a pleasure in itself. This is art.

Drive was very popular and well-liked because it attached his atmosphere and visuals to a clear and well-defined story. It was a thriller as well as a love story and was a good showcase for his talent. His next two films are more esoteric and have divided audiences. The stories are more obscure, even cryptic, and the emphasis is on the mood which he has created. The viewer either appreciates this or doesn’t connect with it. I enjoyed them.

The Neon Demon is set in Hollywood and Los Angeles and surveys the industry, presenting it as a cold and eerie landscape. The film is about models and is not technically about actors – however it touches on common experiences for those who work in the industry there.

There have been a lot of Hollywood films which turn inward and look at the industry itself. The movie world likes to examine itself and has made a number of films about actresses and starlets. Mulholland Drive is about a failed actress who dreams of a better life for herself. Sunset Boulevard is about failure in Hollywood and what happens to the talent who fall out of favor, like a struggling screenwriter and a faded actress who have lost their way

The Neon Demon is probably the closest to All About Eve as it focuses on young women who are competing against each other. The central character of the film is a model named Jesse who is as successful as Eve Harrington once was. The Neon Demon has proceeded into this tradition of films while presenting it with a modern flavor and context.

Jesse comes to Los Angeles and starts working in the modelling industry. Her background is rather vague and the young woman has a blank, almost alien quality. She quickly becomes a rising star due to her beauty and her youth

Her success attracts jealousy and bitterness from other women. She meets models who are only in their mid-twenties but who are already too old for the industry. These women are hostile and envious towards her. Eventually it goes sour.

Los Angeles is presented as a glacial and dangerous world. LA is full of predators in the movie. Jesse befriends a woman who has some very dark tastes and who wants to sleep with her. The manager of her motel is a creep. The jealous older models hate her and are catty towards her. At the conclusion they literally eat her, as if to capture her beauty and vitality. The most decent character – Jesse’s friend – gets frozen out of LA society and is dismissed as a rank amateur.

The film is straightforward at first. The first hour is realistic even though it has a mood of sinister danger and dread. This was probably the better part of the work. The film throws out a strange scene or image and then explains it and makes sense of it. We see Jesse covered in blood, but it is okay because she is doing a photo-shoot. There is a shape hiding inside Jesse’s motel room, and it seems to be a thief. She is scared. It turns out to be a large cat which has got inside while she was away.

This is a balancing act and creates a mood which is very unnerving. It transforms the city of LA into a world of unease. In the second half The Neon Demon takes this mood too far and gets far too dark. After a while the film becomes a full-on horror story and this was where it was dissatisfying. The story becomes unlikely and the behavior of the characters feels contrived.

Nonetheless the film is so pretty that it works well overall. There are some gorgeous images and scenes. A photo-shoot where Jesse is bathed in a gold color against a room full of darkness. A trip into the hills in the evening where the characters enjoy the night sky. The elegant mansions of the rich and the almost ancient feel which they have.

Refn’s previous film Drive sported a blue color scheme. This new work is very feminine so it is fitting that the dominant color of the film is pink.

The Neon Demon is not perfect but is quite beautiful and very interesting to contemplate. It is worth seeing as it is literally a spectacle with a strong aesthetic to it. Whatever Nicolas Winding Refn does next should be something fine.

Title image – Elle Fanning. Author – Gage Skidmore at Flickr.

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