In a stunning contrast between the beautiful and the macabre, the opening shot of The Neon Demon is emblematic of Nicolas Winding Refn’s whole oeuvre. His fascination with the lurid is only matched by his penchant for creating strikingly beautiful images—an artistic paradox rejected by the more impatient and less open-minded of his audience, quick to judge the dazzling visuals of his films as vapid because they lack a more conventional narrative to back them up. The irony of Refn’s critical backlash is that The Neon Demon is precisely about an industry which places judgement on individuals based on the conventional and superficial standards of beauty. It’s not so surprising that the controversial director’s newest venture sets its sights on the fashion industry, because like Refn’s films the fashion industry is a paradox of the beautiful and the macabre—a culture that obsesses over beauty amidst the unsavoury traits of misogyny and bodily self-destruction.
There’s no question Nicolas Winding Refn‘s films are divisive, they’re violent and disturbing and, backing that, they lack easy-to-follow narratives. But like the majority of his work, The Neon Demon is naked metaphor, subtext presented as text. A unfiltered collage of Nicolas Winding Refn’s sentiments and ideas. For a culture that demands audacity and originality Refn seems frighteningly used to justifying his boldness. Only two years after the release of a critical favorite Drive (2011) viewership seemed less inclined to accept the direction of Refn’s more daring artistic pursuits. After some bad press at the Cannes, and a stark deviation of narrative style, critical favor seemed almost too willing to accept that Refn, who most agreed had just created his magnum opus, with Drive, had taken a complete left turn with Only God Forgives.
How audiences had so enthusiastically accepted Drive in the pantheon of masterful cinéma vérité and readily (without question) rejected Only God Forgives evokes a troubling attitude toward filmmaking in general. Both Drive and Only God Forgives operated under similarly baroque and simple makeups. Drive, aside from its striking violence, indulgent visuals and vastly simple plot threads, had the benefit of being romantic. The cynical and contrastively unromantic Only God Forgives composites most of what makes Refn a great visionary and profound stylist, but in absence of a romantic through-line, the superficial appreciation of Drive (along with the equally superficial disregard of Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon) is confirmed with baffling clarity.
The parallels between Refn and the fashion models in his film become a self-fulfilling confessional. To be ingested and spat back out spells out not only Refn’s rise and fall (so to speak), but also unveil the brief longevity of a career model. It’s no coincidence that The Neon Demon features former model Abbey Lee as the star (an outspoken proponent against the industry). Here she playacts as a fashion model who is quickly disposed of in favor of an emerging and younger beauty, played by Elle Fanning. It’s a sobering reality where a young woman’s looks have become their currency. Nicolas Winding Refn’s clouded empathy have always encouraged his audience to look beyond the exterior appeal of his films, in The Neon Demon he observes with a striking literal quality, allowing Elle Fanning and Abbey Lee, reduced to human billboards, to embody insecurity, anxiety and fear with expressive integrity.
Nicolas Winding Refn frames The Neon Demon with a deceptive indifference of his subjects. Staged like ornaments in front the camera, Refn likes to holds the women in a pose like they’re in a state of suspended animation. They’re slightly and alluring but hollow and depthless. Afforded a brief glimpse at the glories of spotlight the women become ghouls in their feud for survival in the modelling industry. When first blood is spilt in The Neon Demo Refn implies the blood sport that’s to follow. Abbey Lee tastes Elle Fanning’s blood in way that seems to invoke our culture’s strange obsession with vampires; ugly creatures of Slavic folklore romanticized and sexualized to endorse mass cultural appeal. Refn seems to understand the irony. The Yin and Yang duology of the ugly and the beautiful is the core message of Refn’s film. The Neon Demon illuminates us to the fact that people are either ignorant of, or simply don’t care to tell the difference between the two. The scene, in which Abbey Lee has a taste of Elle Fanning’s blood, evokes a visceral subtext, that only a thin layer of skin hides us from the hideous, bloody entrails that make us all ugly monsters.