Skip to main content

Room Two-Fourteen! Gotta be seen!

The Neon Demon
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I found the first hour of The Neon Demon mesmerising, an elliptical, synth-driven fever dream and tonal cousin to Beyond the Black Rainbow, ostensibly charting the seductive and destructive path to success in the superficial world of modelling but possibly being about something very much more than that. By the end, however, it had diminished somewhat in my estimation, its cool, retro poise reframed by the most OTT, Grand Guignol, head-on charge. I was left with a shrug, rather than the rapt sense of having been fed through a wringer of revelation. And that’s even with Nicolas Winding Refn’s film being over-ripe for interpretation, so loaded with subtext it’s tantamount to a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.


I suppose the full-on left turn the picture takes shouldn’t have been a surprise. Refn is as wilfully perverse a filmmaker as his fellow countryman Lars von Trier, but whereas I find von Trier’s work consistently unpalatable, in the vomiting-up-eyeballs sense, Refn’s a different kettle of strange fish, a wilful warper of genre and expectation, one who lacks the true, innate, sublime weirdness of a David Lynch, but for all that creates transfixing, immersive environments that seem to pull back the hood on unnerving and inherently arcane people, characters, landscapes and realms. I saw it rather snobbily suggested that Only Once Forgives was a litmus test for fans of Drive, sorting those who mistake its relatively commercial furrow from true Refn-ites. Such a view would apply to The Neon Demon and then some, in that case.


It’s possible that the last 20 minutes will send you running for the (Hollywood) hills, but the most extreme necrophile scene in a mainstream movie since Bad Timing (I’m guessing on that, actually, as I don’t make a habit of seeking them out) and a slow-mo, post-cannibalistic sexy shower, followed by self-immolation via a pair of scissors on the set of a bad Pirelli calendar photo shoot because “I need to get her out of me” come across as escalation in aid of shock value, rather than adding anything we haven’t already absorbed thematically. So the industry feeds on its own, sucking up the young and innocent and spewing them out in a tangle of body parts. So it’s a hotbed of exploitation. Colour me unfazed.


On the other hand, is Jena Malone a refashioned, less jingle-jangle Jimmy Savile (perhaps surprisingly embodied in the otherwise dismal latest “season” of Sherlock; surprisingly, since Steven Moffat isn’t exactly known for his keen sense of the topical, unless it’s through cringe-making pop culture references). This aspect - intertwining the fashion industry with occult acts and iconography – makes The Neon Demon more arresting, demanding of attention, but the full-blooded excess at the end rather blunts the incrementally more unsettling dis-ease of the world Jesse finds herself in and quickly comes to adopt. It’s the suggestive versus the in the face.


The former is there long before Keanu references the “Real Lolita shit” in Room 214; Christina Hendricks’ agent has no qualms about signing an underage girl (“Honey, people believe what they are told”) and the procedure for facilitating this is well-rehearsed. Anyone familiar with the gist of Pizzagate (“Fake News” or otherwise, in which case it simply joins the fake news touted by daily the mainstream media) would find it easy to draw parallels with a movie where the ingénue is asked “Are you food or sex?” and her allure is referred to in terms of “Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?The Neon Demon looks as if it is going a very specific way prior to the third act’s overkill, that Elle will wrest the mantle of vehement bitch from those she threatened and who despise her; instead, the model who can “keep her down” is the one who thrives on plastic surgery, so hollowed out and corrupted that she is readily fuelled/topped up by the raw essence of youth.


Refn has selected his cast eclectically. Elle Fanning (Jesse), replacing a scheduling-conflicted Carey Mulligan, has the kind of detached, porcelain mask of a younger Nicole Kidman, such that her transformation from naïf takes little suspension of disbelief (of course, there’s the question of how much she really is that in the first place, and how much it’s calculated; why are her parents out of the picture, and what are we to make of comments such as “I’m not as helpless as I look” and “I am dangerous”?)


Jena Malone (Ruby), a fantastic actress, essays the sympathetic/predatory guide turned scorned Lady Bathory with aplomb, while Abbey Lee (Sarah) is a revelation as the soulless, synthetic automaton who will do whatever it takes to stay in the game (Lee hails from the catwalk world, so has probably seen a thing or two). If Bella Heathcote is less impactful, that’s the intent of the part. Together, they make three witches (or points on a triangle), luring a Macbeth to her destruction.


And there’s strong support from Keanu Reeves in The Gift mode (Sam Raimi’s one) as a psychopathic hotelier and Alessandro Nivola (Robert Sarno), effortlessly confident as a fashionista who cuts short Karl Gusman’s protestations at being attracted to what’s inside Elle rather than without, although not so much that he’ll consume her (“I think if she wasn’t beautiful, that you wouldn’t even have stopped to look”), and Dexter’s Desmond Harrington (Jack) looking every inch the delusional, coked-up photographer (let’s hope he didn’t go method). There is, of course, a direct link between the adulated movers of the fashion and film worlds, both of whom will have a starlet begging to compromise herself under the banner of art (particularly European-flavoured art).


The star, though, is Refn’s distended, oppressively womb-like world, cosseted by Cliff Martinez’ pulsing score. Natasha Braier’s cinematography is of a piece with Refn’s previous form for intensely saturated hues, indicating that he’s very much leading his collaborators by the hand. Martinez said the first half of the movie was a Valley of the Dolls-style melodrama and the second half a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style horror. I can certainly see the former, the latter somewhat less so, except in the most obvious narrative cue.


In some respects, it’s closer to The Wicker Man; Jesse becomes an offering, sustenance in maintaining a corrupted system (Sarah’s cachet is revitalised by consumption of her victim’s essence, Jack being struck by her the way he and Sarno were by Jesse earlier), Ruby’s skyclad rites following the burial of their victim (at this point, I considered the picture might be revealing itself as really all about her, but it is much about Sarah, particularly in her responses to the rise of Jesse and how precisely it impugns her own worth).


But going back to the cryptic and occult under- and overtones, there are the references to The Shining (Room 214, red rum, the menstrual tide), the Giger-esque first photo shoot by Jack (at least, it reminded me of his cover for Debbie Harry’s solo album, rather than Baphomet). Mirrors and pyramids, and swastikas, abound, and those who have a field day suggesting Kubrick devoted his career to exposing the Illuminati will surely see The Neon Demon picking up where he left off.


Being one for conspiratorial fare, I was unimpressed by a highly prurient Vigilant Citizen piece on the picture’s possible themes, clearly basing its view of “an indulgent celebration from people who revel in darkness” on its distaste for the content rather than attending to what it’s saying; you’d have to be incredibly blinkered to come away with that message (“It actually attempts to make everything cool, trendy and fashionable”: really? Anyone reacting to it that way is probably is looking to get sectioned. Or go spirit cooking). It’s mostly that Refn, being an unmalleable, crazy Dane, doesn’t feel the need to lead his narratives by the nose with Hollywood Moral Framing 101. It’s still pretty unmistakable who’s bad here, though.


All of which is well and good, but I must admit I was hoping for something either more off-kilter or more enigmatic. Perhaps Refn’s bluntness shouldn’t have surprised me, but it certainly didn’t altogether satisfy, and is preceded by a section where I began to feel a slight ponderous tone setting up shop. Nevertheless, if you have the stomach, this is a strange, bewitching movie, one that is fascinating and though-provoking for all its flaws. It’s also a strong runner-up to Zoolander 2 in the list of 2016 modelling movies that culminate with diabolical human sacrifices.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

Never lose any sleep over accusations. Unless they can be proved, of course.

Strangers on a Train (1951) (SPOILERS) Watching a run of lesser Hitchcock films is apt to mislead one into thinking he was merely a highly competent, supremely professional stylist. It takes a picture where, to use a not inappropriate gourmand analogy, his juices were really flowing to remind oneself just how peerless he was when inspired. Strangers on a Train is one of his very, very best works, one he may have a few issues with but really deserves nary a word said against it, even in “compromised” form.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

I don’t like fighting at all. I try not to do too much of it.

Cuba (1979) (SPOILERS) Cuba -based movies don’t have a great track record at the box office, unless Bad Boys II counts. I guess The Godfather Part II does qualify. Steven Soderbergh , who could later speak to box office bombs revolving around Castro’s revolution, called Richard Lester’s Cuba fascinating but flawed. Which is generous of him.

You’re easily the best policeman in Moscow.

Gorky Park (1983) (SPOILERS) Michael Apted and workmanlike go hand in hand when it comes to thriller fare (his Bond outing barely registered a pulse). This adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 novel – by Dennis Potter, no less – is duly serviceable but resolutely unremarkable. William Hurt’s militsiya officer Renko investigates three faceless bodies found in the titular park. It was that grisly element that gave Gorky Park a certain cachet when I first saw it as an impressionable youngster. Which was actually not unfair, as it’s by far its most memorable aspect.