Provocation is an important tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal. It is what shakes an audience out of complacency, and gets them engaged. Any genre – even comedy – has the potential to be provocative, forcing us to question why we are shocked. Nicolas Winding Refn wants to be provocative more than most filmmakers out there. He made an international splash with Drive, a thriller that’s more about mood than action, and his latest The Neon Demon features many of the same hallmarks: a throbbing electro soundtrack, saturated cinematography, and sudden violence. While his breakthrough used thriller tropes to comment on the genre, his latest comments on his own obsessions, and not much else. It is provocative for its own sake.
The opening title cards serve as a statement of purpose. Over a lush background, one that veers from one loud color to another, Refn plunges the viewer into his stylized, impressionistic worldview. It’s sort of like a Madonna video, except the director has the biggest ego (I cannot think of another filmmaker who would insert a monogram of his own initials into the opening credits). His fetishes and obsessions drip into every frame: he starts with a young woman (Elle Fanning) laying in a bathtub, her throat crimson with blood. The blood is fake; she moved to Los Angeles to start a modeling career, and these shots are her entry point. Her name is Jesse, and the film is about her ascendancy into the cutthroat world of high fashion. Instead of friends, she only finds enemies and admirers. Jesse knows she’s beautiful – in the classic sense of the word – to the point where she drives photographers and fellow models toward madness.
Refn’s entry to Jesse’s newfound universe is a mix of glamor and grime. She meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a nurturing makeup artist who gets her all the right meetings. Still, she lives at a sleazy motel, one that’s full of other runaways, and it’s run by Hank (an unusually creepy Keanu Reeves). All these settings are opportunities for Refn to explore the power of transcendent beauty. There is an early scene where Jesse regards herself in a mirror, and the reflection seemingly transforms the motel room into other glamorous photo shoot – except her eyes are the camera.
Sometimes Refn abstracts Jesse’s self-regard into hallucinogenic territory: there are sequences where the camera takes in little light or background, and it frames Jesse around a single glowing shape. The Neon Demon follows its own rules, except Refn declines to explain them. They have no rational explanation, and serve as a means to highlight Jesse’s singular beauty. The dialogue can be infrequent, with much of it mired in the clichés of a girl from nowhere who wants to Make It Big, so the real development happens when we’re given even less to think about. We decide what think of Jesse, and Refn trusts himself so he thinks the audience reaches the same conclusion he does.
The Neon Demon is nearly two hours long, and for a while Refn exercises some restraint. There is little nudity, for one thing, and he uses simple techniques in order to provoke a sense of unease, or wonder. But the film starts to escalate its tension, to the point where transgressive violence and sexuality is the only territory Refn can explore. His best scenes are silent, predatory: there is a creepy sequence where a photographer objectifies Jesse, without any reassurances of his purpose, and it veers into Refn’s notion of the sublime. The film ends with flat-out horror – I imagine someone will walk out every time it’s shown – but the climax is so over-the-top and bloody that it’s funny. During the final surrealist sequences, the audience joined in a chorus of groans. Not out of disbelief, but because it was all so damn obvious.
As a director who makes no attempt to hide his narcissism, Refn overplays his hand with a secondary character. Alessandro Nivola appears as a fashion designer, one who mercilessly eyeballs models until he settles on Jesse as the star of his latest show. The fashion designer character looks like Refn (they even wear the same glasses), and that character is also given the film’s most thoughtful dialogue. He has a speech where he articles the ephemeral, unassailable nature of Jesse’s looks. The speech inspires jealous reaction shots from Jesse’s model colleagues (they all look cruel), and pushes Jesse’s ego into the stratosphere. The thing is that Refn believes the fashion designer: he relishes beauty as a galvanizing, destructive force, so The Neon Demon falters in its assumption we share the same kinks.
Some of my favorite recent films are provocative ones that star beautiful women. Under the Skin is a terrific, disturbing science-fiction parable that uses an alien succubus to explore our shared humanity in a patriarchal world. The Duke of Burgundy uses pretense and sex to unearth a heartbreaking romance, one where communication is lost by the need for ritual. The Neon Demon is about little more than Refn’s jollies, or a superficial consideration of beauty that most children learn with a fairy tale. If Refn pushed the material into horror instead of abstraction, then his film might work as commentary on, well, anything else. Instead, Refn is nothing more than a talented stylist who indulges his laziest impulses – at the expense of his actors, and his fans.