Film Grains: The Neon Demon (2016)

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I wish to stress that this is not a film for everyone. There are no spoilers in the review, but the link to the Cannes Film Festival does. Avoid that link until you have seen the film.

Anticipation:   4/5   Nicolas Winding Refn makes cinema. He is one of the few. Drive and Only God Forgives are masterpieces of cinema in their own right… The Neon Demon is my most anticipated film of 2016.

Final Verdict:  5/5   Gore, blood, sex, viciousness and irony. Refn’s stunning visuals tickle the eye as he cannibalizes bygone visual metaphors that, in the hands of a lesser director, could have delved into schlock. The Neon Demon will leave you hungry for more… but only if you can stomach it. A great film.

Jesse (Elle Fanning), a small town 16 year-old aspiring model moves to L.A. to start her career. Three women, Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), become jealous and obsessive of the attention she is getting. Their obsession for Jesse’s youth, beauty and lustiness becomes a violent attempt at consuming her allure.

On the surface, The Neon Demon seems like a commentary on contemporary society’s idolatry of the superficial, posing as a reflection of the pressures associated to the modelling industry. While I agree with that reading, the sublime triangle/prism imagery in The Neon Demon suggests that the film can be viewed from a variety angles and will reflect a plethora of colors.

The opening shot of The Neon Demon (header photo) is a tribute to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But, in doing what he does best, Refn reassess Kubrick’s objectification and commodification of women theme by using the audiences’ preconceptions to his advantage. The Neon Demon is not about the “male gaze,” but is rather about its subversion. The men in the film, are quite harmless, save for a few strange incidents involving nightmares, with the-ever-so-excellent-since-John-Wick, Keanu Reeves.  The women, however, are haunting.

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“Are you food? Or are you sex?” says Ruby to Jesse while she touches up her Redrum lipstick, another wonderful little nod to Kubrick, but this time to The Shining. The question Ruby asks underlines the tragic way the women in The Neon Demon see each other: as two forms of consumption. The question of identity comes up but once at a gathering with a fashion designer when Jesse’s “boyfriend,” Dean, says to her “Who are you?”, a question that seems ubiquitous in society today yet, very seldom rewarded with an honest response.

I will not single out a specific approach to Refn’s film because all great cinema is open to interpretation as Refn’s last three films, namely Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon have demonstrated. However, I do believe that The Neon Demon completes Refn’s existential triptych; a deconstruction of what it is to be Man (Drive), Woman (The Neon Demon) and their relationship to Faith/Fate, or for lack of a better word, “God” (Only God Forgives). Drive reassessed the prince’s role in fairy tales by looking past the “happily-ever-after” ending; Only God Forgives explored the dilemmas that come with a desire for vengeance and, if acted upon, the consequences of the Wrath of God. The Neon Demon is a companion piece to Drive inasmuch as it examines the fairy tale world from the side of the princess and what happens to the many aspiring princesses when they realize they are not chosen to be one.

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Cinematographer Natasha Braier helps Refn polish the visual language of the film and as a result, there is a lot to be dissected from The Neon Demon. The stunning visuals and narrative allude to modern interpretations of fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but there are also flashes of the relationship between Lucifer, Leviathan, Belial and Satan; glimmers of Alice Through the Looking Glass and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (the weird sisters’ dealings with fate especially); and glints of the tale of Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the latter slightly suggesting Jesse’s dual personalities as both Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra. Add to the mix a little animal symbolism found in the form of a cougar, a leopard and a wolf, and drown all the ingredients in Pagan rituals and Kubrickian atmospherics, a visceral soundtrack by Cliff Martinez and voilà! A recipe for a fancy feast ready to be devoured! It may have turned the Cannes Film Festival into Gigi, but it definitely turned me into Ruby!

Some critics have brushed off The Neon Demon flat out calling it the culmination of fetishes from a pornographer, or a beautiful and visually arresting film but empty at its core, comparing the film’s narrative to the character of Jesse, who is only admired for her looks. I completely understand how some people may not have liked it and were/will be disgusted by the film. There are scenes in The Neon Demon that are quite disturbing and stick with you in a way that can be quite unpleasant. It really is not a typical film and I must stress that it is not for everyone. For some reason, I loved it. If you’re looking for something completely different than what you are used to watching, then I encourage you to give it a try.

As cliché as it may seem, the film toys with the notion that looks can be deceiving, and all I can hear right now is The Neon Demon whispering:

“I’m not as helpless as I seem.”

The Neon Demon opens Friday June 24th in the United States, July 1st in Canada and on July 8th in the U.K.

The Neon Demon trailer 1

The Neon Demon Red Band trailer

Read Little White Lies favorable review of the film here or buy the magazine here

Also, here’s Little White Lies’ list of 8 films to see before watching The Neon Demon

Read IGN’s rather unfavorable review here

Watch Ryan Gosling moderate a conversation with Elle Fanning and Nicolas Winding Refn about The Neon Demon here

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21 Comments Add yours

  1. Lee Brady says:

    Wonderful review, anticipation for this couldn’t be higher. Very interested in the interpretation side of things; if I can gleam one insight of an angle that surprises me I’ll be very happy with this.
    Trust you to pick up on all the Kubrickisms haha!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking forward to this one! Still need a rewatch of ‘Only God Forgives,’ couldn’t quite get to grips with it. But Drive remains one of my favourite films of the past decade

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment and the like! I appreciate it! I understand how “Only God Forgives” can be off putting. “Valhalla Rising” gave one of my friends a hard time too. ‘Drive” is my number 3 favorite film. Here’s a little something I wrote about it a while ago, if you’re interested :) https://thefilmfaculty.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/drive/

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Never saw it as a fairy tale after the happy ending, so when I will next watch it I will bear that in mind! Didn’t catch Valhalla Rising either

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Cool! Valhalla Rising isn’t for everyone and probably Refn’s least accessible film :) One of my best friends despises that movie and I understand why. I enjoyed the first 2 acts very much and then started slowly losing interest in the 3rd. It becomes odd… acceptable, but odd. I guess Valhalla Rising may be a little like salt water: difficult to ingest. Give it a shot if you didn’t have trouble with Only God Forgives. :)

        Liked by 2 people

      3. May give it a shot then!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Not enough people are talking about this film! I was blown away while watching this in the theaters. Especially that ending! It gives me chills just thinking about it. Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Brendan! I appreciate your comment! I agree that not enough people are talking about it, but time will be kind to The Neon Demon. It will find its place as a cult classic.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Liam says:

    Great review. Really looking forward to this film. I loved Drive also.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Liam! Drive is remarkable. Loved every minute of that film. Refn isn’t as subtle in The Neon Demon, but it’s definitely a film that warrants the attention it’s getting; positive or negative :)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. filmsCine says:

    Very cool review! I MUST see this!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment, filmsCine! Be sure to come back and tell me how you felt about the film once you’ve seen it!

      Like

  6. Jordan Dodd says:

    Just stumbled across your blog via googling neon demon and triangles, hehe. Got to say, this is an extremely well written analysis of a film filled with symbolism. I look forward to re-watching it with your thoughts in mind :)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mr. Dodd, Thank you so much for that wonderful compliment :). That’s one of the nicest things someone has said about my work. Let me know if you’re on Twitter. I’m @Film_Faculty. I’d love to continue chatting with you there :)

      I’m glad you enjoyed The Neon Demon. I had a blast in the movie theatre. I’ve got it lined up for a second viewing in the next few weeks :) Should be great!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jordan Dodd says:

        Now following :) Mine is @epileptimaniak

        Unfortunately this, like so many others, isn’t getting to our theatres till next month. Yet the blu-ray is already out. How backwards is that!

        And you are welcome my friend, after watching the movie I found your analysis to be very on point and it definitely got me thinking. And those are the posts I like the most – ones that get me thinking

        Cheers!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. The Vern says:

    You brought up a lot of great points in your review. Never made the Kubrick references, but they work.

    Like

    1. Thanks, sir!

      Like

  8. Gavin says:

    Just watched this film, and listened to your comments on twitter. I cannot argue with anything that you say in this analysis of the film (you are coming at it from a much more advanced/educated viewpoint than I am!). But this is the good thing about watching films and then reading stuff about them, it gives you things to think about and a desire to watch them again with those concepts in mind.
    I absolutely loved Only God Forgives, and Drive is right up there too. Through they both took their time to tell their stories whilst also maintaining Refn’s desired aesthetic. Valhalla Rising, again, takes it’s time to tell the tale, and does get a bit weird towards the end but it too I found engaging.
    I think the problem I had with this film is the large amount of space given to the visuals, as good as they were. It impacted on the flow, making it appear vacuous and empty. I would have liked to have seen it a bit tighter on running time, giving it a bit more drive (no pun intended!).
    I’m now off to read your other stuff on Refn’s work. Then probably going to watch his films over again! Great stuff Jason, wonderful piece.

    Like

    1. Thanks Gavin! I really appreciate your kind words. I also understand what you mean by the “space given to visuals.” But that’s one of the things I appreciated. I like how the film gives itself room to breathe. In a time where we’re constantly having things thrown at us from off the screen, The Neon Demon goes in the opposite direction and allows itself to just be, even if it does linger just a little over what we’d normally expect.

      Like

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