Anyone au fait with the cinema of Nicolas Winding Refn must know by now that the man doesn’t do safe, in the same practical way as, say for example, his fellow Danish provocateur Lars von Trier doesn’t do tame. Refn’s brand of hyper-stylised, ultra-violent filmmaking has carved up critical trenches and turned wolves out of cinephiles (what with the highfalutin howling record Refn receives in Cannes), with his detractors mostly targeting his lack of narrative complexity in his screenplays and his propensity for style over substance. An argument which isn’t entirely fallacious, given that the director’s filmography isn’t really gunning for some Kubrickian panache or Kaufmanesque depth. For someone with films such as Drive and Only God Forgives under his directorial belt, clearly Refn is neither out to please the common denominator nor the high-minded demographic but rather carves his own class of aesthetically subversive works of cinematic art that collectively polarise, shock and exhilarate to varying degrees. And whether you like his output or not, the man hardly gives a damn.
This is all writ large in his latest The Neon Demon – a wickedly stylish and gruesome haute couture horror that will certainly repulse many – a film that’s less concerned with genre exercise but more on the recapitulation, even reinforcement, of Refn’s visionary filmmaking. Right from Demon‘s opening credits du jour (complete with an NWR simulacrum to rival that of the iconic YSL fashion totem) to its jaw-droppingly what-the-fuck finale, Refn isn’t so much concerned with lip-smacking audience satisfaction as fulfilling his own artistic audacity and waving two middle fingers to yawn-inducing conventions.
Refn isn’t so much concerned with lip-smacking audience satisfaction as fulfilling his own artistic audacity and waving two middle fingers to yawn-inducing conventions.
Coming from a filmmaker who refashioned the Western anti-hero cinema with Drive and flipped the Jacobean revenge narrative with Only God Forgives, a giallo-inspired LA fashion noir that’s throbbing with sex, violence and Grand Guignol depravity somehow feels natural in the most cynical way. That certain instances of borderline masochism and scenes of unspeakable human madness (necrophilia and cannibalism, please stand up) feel less of a provocation than a wildly satirical allegory of the cutthroat, surface-obsessed fashion industry. Where ephemeral youth and beauty are traded by vampiric vogue merchants and soulless runway models with moral codes measured by their killer skyscraper heels.
Sure, Refn might not sell himself as a spectacularly skilled screenwriter, but he takes that “wide-eyed ingenue goes to the Big City” narrative out into the field and does fascinating things with it that many directors flail at mere attempt. Ever the visualist (even a conceptualist, one would argue), he often suspends script and lets his whirl of sensual images, mood and music take over, lending itself to full-tilt, sensory experience that words often fail to express. The film’s golden-haired, angelic antiheroine Jesse (Elle Fanning at her most revelatory) goes through a euphoric, once-in-a-lifetime success and Refn demonstrates her swift climb along the runway ladder in the most Refn way – a glitter-paint photoshoot that becomes, by turns, tense, erotic and beautiful, a bondage-themed disco strobed with diabolically saturated light, a catwalk scene that’s executed like part-nightmare, part-vanity show. There is no shortage of style on display here, and The Neon Demon looks, sounds and feels art directed by someone on top of his A game.
Suspiria, Mulholland Drive and elements of Eyes Wide Shut all inform Refn’s cold-blooded neo-noir and it certainly ranks as perhaps the darkest film made about fashion. Forget The Devil Wears Prada. Meryl Streep’s editor-from-hell Miranda Priestley would shiver next to the sensational Jena Malone and her character Ruby’s disturbingly macabre antics. There’s also Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee’s exquisitely scathing feline duo, with figurative claws at bay, ready to rip anything that threatens to hasten their career expiry dates. At closer inspection, The Neon Demon is a Grimms’ fairy tale told in modernist strokes, albeit a morally debased one. Fame, glamour and glory all have lured this pretty, narcissistic little thing deep into the dark woods where malevolent night creatures lurk, athirst for hot, young blood.