Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Neon Demon: Blonde Ambition

As I watched Nicolas Winding Refn's (Drive, Only God Forgives, Bronson) latest, I was mesmerized by how visually and aurally stunning it is (the music by Cliff Martinez and cinematography by Natasha Braier are absolutely jaw-dropping).  Refn has a true gift for mise en scène--the guy really knows how to direct.  His is a style that he has branded--literally--the film opens with "NWR," eschewing the conventional "A film by...."  I haven't seen Bronson, but it seems that Refn is increasingly more interested in sensual provocation than he is in satisfying storytelling.  As stylish as Drive is, it seems quaintly conventional compared to The Neon Demon.

The Neon Demon doesn't pretend to be a work of realism--from the outset it's very much in David Lynch territory, being specifically reminiscent of Mulholland Drive, also set in Los Angeles and focusing on an ingenue, this time an aspiring model (apparently orphaned, from some flyover state) named Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, who was 17 when this was shot.

Add to that a number of striking, ominous shots of creepy corridors and hallways (fantastic locations/art direction in this movie, especially an old Spanish mansion in the hills), as well as static scenes that echo, respectively, Kubrick's The Shining and Barry Lyndon, as well as Hitchcockian elements (the two leading competing models are also blonde, evoking Vertigo and Psycho), and you have a film that's infused with dread and with characters who are and aren't who they seem, who are alternately persona and shadow. (Bergman's Persona also comes to mind--the film is dedicated to "Liv"--Refn's wife's name, but it also made me wonder if the writer-director might also be referencing Liv Ullmann).

I haven't seen Refn's film Bronson, but based on the others, his brand is a highly stylized immersive experience (if you see this new film, it absolutely must be on a big screen) that arouses sensation.  Now, this is different from David Lynch, who in my experience engages the unconscious, or Kubrick, who gets us to tap into complex emotions (I recall taking to my bed in a fetal position and weeping after seeing Eyes Wide Shut the first time).  Refn is more of an amygdala guy--he activates/engages the the most primitive part of the brain--which seemed to really appeal to the fanboys in the audience of the screening I attended.  You're fascinated and repelled at the same time.

In the first act, Jesse asserts, "I'm not as helpless as I look."  Oh God, we hope so, but the fact that she needs to state this is a defensive red flag. Heroes are supposed to be initially reluctant, right?  Or so the screenwriting gurus tell us....

Refn wrote this with two women, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, and the film almost seems to be a feminist cautionary tale, at least initially.  And then a story of Jesse's innocence becoming corrupted by experience, which we hope she will not be helpless to overcome.  But the film is ultimately an exercise in horror, as the third act devolves into major camp. It's stunning, meticulously executed, triumphantly shocking camp, to be sure.  You'll laugh, but it will be a nervous chuckle, filled with dread.

Kudos to Fanning's co-stars Jena Malone as a non-blonde make up artist with an unconventional sexual fetish, and models Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee (memorable as one of the wives in Mad Max:  Fury Road), who function as Jesse's Furies here.  There's also a sinister cameo from Keanu Reeves as Jesse's motel manager.

You'll need a stiff drink after--or even better, during--this film:

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