The Neon Demon Review: Nicolas Winding Refn's "Black Swan for Models" Falls Short

Thursday, 23 June 2016 - 2:13PM
Reviews
Thursday, 23 June 2016 - 2:13PM
The Neon Demon Review: Nicolas Winding Refn's "Black Swan for Models" Falls Short
Nicolas Winding Refn's latest horror movie, The Neon Demon, is well-acted, visually stunning, and nothing if not subversive, delving into the most taboo of psychosexual horror tropes with glee. Broadly speaking, one could characterize it as Black Swan for models, but since it lacks that movie's keen sense of character development, it's more difficult to forgive the sophomoric feminism, lesbian panic, and borderline exploitative camerawork. The Neon Demon sometimes succeeds as a parable about the effects of the patriarchal gaze on the psyche, but ultimately is more interested in making a beautiful movie than a movie about beauty.


The Neon Demon follows a fresh-faced young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) who moves to Los Angeles and is immediately signed by a big agency. As her career starts to take off, she is besieged by a series of characters who want something from her--specifically her natural beauty--ranging from fellow models like Abbey Lee's over-the-hill 25-year-old and Bella Heathcote's desperate plastic surgery addict to predatory men like Desmond Harrington's power-mad photographer and, hilariously, Keanu Reeves as Jesse's sexually deviant hotel manager.

First things first, The Neon Demon only succeeds if the viewer accepts that it is a parable. Held to any standards of realism, the dialogue and plot are utterly ridiculous, but once you surrender to its sumptuous visual aesthetic and archetypal characterization, it's a gorgeously shot and particularly gruesome Grimm's fairy tale. The dialogue may be melodramatic, but once you get used to it, there is a surprising amount of wry humor and occasional insight. And the imagery, which seeks to associate beauty, sex, and death in the most dramatic of ways, is often indelible; a sequence in which a character is forced to fellate a knife is one of the most memorable of the film, and yet not even the goriest scene of the piece.

Possible spoilers ahead! (Click to reveal)


So fair warning: this movie not for the faint of heart. In the span of two hours, there are scenes of rape, necrophilia, cannibalism, and the regurgitation (and re-consumption) of a bloody eyeball. In my screening, you could literally hear the viewers voice their discomfort, saying things like "WTF" and "Ugh, don't do that!" I've seen a lot of horror movies in theaters, and none of them have inspired such a visceral reaction from the audience.


But ultimately you're left thinking: to what end? Nicolas Winding Refn is best known for exploring the perils of toxic masculinity, and when he tries to make a feminist movie, it shows. The feminist themes and psychological beats are perfectly legitimate, if somewhat cliched: society values Jesse for her beauty, which leads to Jesse valuing herself for her beauty. She can't truly connect with anyone, because everyone wants something from her. Sex is used as a consumptive power tool, even in the case of a seemingly benevolent lesbian friend (although as a general rule, lesbians don't try to force themselves on their unsuspecting straight friends, no matter how much movies think they do). And since the women are the main perpetrators of the violence against Jesse, the movie demonstrates that the villain of the piece isn't men, but the patriarchy that values women based on their appearance and is perpetuated by men and women alike.

I could forgive the fact that these themes are extremely well-trod territory, except that the aesthetic of the film completely undercuts the point. The film is ostensibly decrying the notion that women should be valued based on their beauty, and yet the camerawork is clearly luxuriating in it. Elle Fanning looks like an ethereal princess in almost every shot, Abbey Lee's striking blue eyes are the primary focal point of the camera in all of her scenes, and the close-up shots on the women's bodies make it clear that this movie was made by a straight man. The visual aesthetic of the film is unimpeachable, until you realize that the (very talented) actresses are portrayed as part of that aesthetic. It's difficult to make a feminist movie about objectification when the women are treated as beautiful set pieces.

The Neon Demon comes out in theaters tomorrow, June 24.
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