I imagine Nicolas Winding Refn (seriously, at this point he should shorten it to N.W. Refn and go full old-school auteur on us, Murnau style) has a lot of deep thoughts to put forward to his audiences. Sometimes they manifest out through stories and characters and images that coalesce in a succinct way (Drive), and other times not so much (Only God Forgives). But it's safe to say he's now in another universe than as the director who once did gritty hand-held street crime movies like the Pusher series, as he has a film that feels like a final thesis project in a Stanley Kubrick Masters class. And if I were a professor given the unlikely and dubious task of assigning students 'grades', Refn would get a B+. Or a B, I'm still not sure.
At any rate, I can call the man an artist because he listens to no one but his own intuition for a film such as The Neon Demon, which is mostly a drama (and in its way somewhat or maybe mostly too a horror film) about a seemingly ingenue-like 16 year old who comes to LA to gain traction as a model (Elle Fanning) and the perils she comes up against as she rises to stardom. Or... is it stardom? She says at one point to a male friend (not quite a boyfriend, I think) that she can't write or sing or do things creatively like that, but she's pretty and "I can get money for that." So she's out for the ego part, no question - how far she'll go is of course always the trouble in these stories.
If this kind of rise-and-fall scenario sounds familiar, well, it is. It's not uncommon to get the story of a young woman trying to find her way into fame and fortune only to have back-biting b***hes on a back because, well, they don't have "It". I think if Refn is out to use his gaze at anything, and it's a powerful one for much of the film, it's to look at the ugliness and despair and kind of scathing depravity just under the surface. Again, not necessarily the most original point either (I was reminded of the one bit from the movie Holy Motors, where the photographer is shouting one moment "Beauty! Beauty! Beauty" then turns his gaze at the freak and goes "Weird! Werid! Weird!")
There's many sequences in the film that are striking, if nothing else for how they're shot - ironically Refn, from what I've read and heard, is color-blind, so a magnanimous kudos to Natasha Braier and her team for the cinematography, tops for the year (like the kind that features lens flare that works, well, take note JJ Abrams) - like when Jessie, Fanning's supposed ingenue, is in front of the photog Jack (Desmond Harrington, remember him from Dexter, much better-creepier here, stone solid). It's her first time with him and he has her strip, to which he closes off the set and gets her slathered in gold. It's not done in some way like he's being a pervert or deviant, except in the way that maybe artists can get or are called out on (maybe Refn's own meta-commentary, in his way, a little, I think so), but it's really about how to make ART and be in control of a moment. When Jessie's asked how it went by Jena Malone's Ruby Jessie goes, "It was great."
|Mmmm strawberry dna!|
And yet I left the movie in an odd way not totally satisfied. The Neon Demon is shot and presented in a manner that says "see me on as big a screen with good sound for our kickin' 80's Cliff Martinez score, please", so if you do go see it in a theater. And one performance more than others, Jena Malone, feels complete and I wish in a way the movie was about her most of all (her character is a crucial component, as the real 'friend' as the non-model of the bunch of women). Despite all the movie has going for it, including a few amazing/terrifying/funny scenes with Keanu Reeves of all people, it's a very cold movie at its core, ugly, brutal, unrelenting in its outlook of, in brief, that women HATE women. Especially in a world where they're defined by how men (and, to be fair, other women as well to an extent) see them in clothes and their underwear or sometimes nothing at all.
|so... existential, y'know?|
I get that that's the point, but Refn stretches the ugliness to such a point near the end that it becomes silly, and not in a way that worked. Earlier on, the Kubrick comparison holds by being very icy and methodical in its camera-work - every pan, every push-in, every two-shot is slow-building and people talk in pauses and so on - but there's a satirical point to it as well, like we KNOW this isn't real, but that's the game to point that out. And then it... gets into real madness and its horror movie sense goes wild, to where I'm sure Refn knows he's f***ing with us, and yet Fanning's character gets the short shrift as a result. I hoped for more with Jessie here from how he's set up, and then after she changes (or does she, that's the interesting thing if she does or not) it soon devolves in the last 20 minutes into being straight-up provocation.
In other words, Neon Demon is a movie I loved and hated, and there's no easy response to recommend it. Refn and his collaborators once again bring out a Los Angeles that's got both the pretty (that wide vista overlooking the city from the cliff-top is there), the empty (those wide rooms showing the spaces that people have left open in their minds) and dirty (the motel area). It's someone putting up images and faces and moments that will shock us, or most of us, or some of us, but at least he's trying, and it's not a bore or misfire (cough, Only God Forgives, cough.