Style is often treated as the antithesis to substance, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest feature puts forward a strong case that style can be the substance.
It took me a while to work out exactly how I felt about this film: what initially felt like a series of really, really beautifully shot editorials left me feeling really unsettled. Initially, I left the cinema feeling like I’d watched a striking music video and not much more; but very quickly my feelings changed: the next day I was still thinking about it, and I was trying to work out why. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have learned something from this cinematic experience, but what? Beauty is skin deep? The fashion industry is superficial? The dangers of living in a youth-obsessed culture, where symmetry and slimness is valued above experience and loyalty? None of these are new concepts, so that’s not it.
Here’s what I do know: there’s not much in the way of character development or conventional narrative, but this is a rare instance in which that’s not a problem. Rather, Refn is more interested in image, and the extreme lengths taken to cultivate and successfully execute a flawless one, both by its characters and in the film as a whole.
To say that the film is beautifully shot is an understatement. There’s a discipline to the style and a consistency in the lighting, framing, and development of colour palette that is really special. No frame of this film feels wasted or thoughtless, and at the same time nothing feels contrived. Every image depicted – be it a person, inanimate object, or a cityscape – is carefully cultivated, disciplined and deliberate in its presentation.
The film’s depiction of the fashion industry isn’t so much ‘critical’ as it is distorted and grotesque. Photographers and designers are indistinguishable from thugs and rapists; a photoshoot could be mistaken for a murder scene; dark metaphors become literal, and vice versa. The industry’s ubiquitous obsession with youth is a key theme, but the film goes deeper by zeroing in on the industry’s obsession with “newness” and the dangerous effects this has on those cast aside.
The film shows a disconnection between the physical body and the people who inhabit them — bodies are treated as objects, thrown about, painted, touched, moved, and toyed with at will, with nary a thought about the effect on the people inhabiting them, let alone consent. The disconnection between the physical body and humanity was the biggest source of discomfort for me, and felt like the key driver behind the film’s most infamous scenes.
Each performance in The Neon Demon is nuanced, controlled and effective. Elle Fanning embodies wide-eyed wonder and youthful vitality with an eerie coolness; Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote are terrifyingly beautiful, both turning in disciplined and mannered performances; Keanu Reeves gives really good creep (who knew?); and Jena Malone is a standout.
This film won’t be for everyone. It will challenge, confront and exasperate you, it walks a line between brilliance and repugnance and looks fabulous doing it. It’s a cinematic experience that will probably live in your memory longer than most, and that in itself is a helluva feat.