THE NEON DEMON
(2016, Nicolas Winding Refn)
[4 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of © Madman Entertainment // In Australian cinemas October 20]
In the mid-60s, Susan Sontag, in her essay 'Against Interpretation', called for an "erotics of art". She wanted to do away with the metaphorical and symbolic interpretations in art criticism and instead asked audiences to train their eyes on the formal and sensual qualities of the work. She says: "Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art - and in criticism - today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are."
THE NEON DEMON, as its title suggests, is as luminous as they come. It is the kind of movie that provokes its viewer to interpret its images but I would say one would get more out of it by simply savouring its sleek surfaces. It is a beautifully rendered nightmare. No use on dwelling on what it means upon waking.
Like his previous films, Refn's new work is ripe with symbols and many cinema-goers would enthusiastically pick apart what a particular scene means or what the images represented. What was the wonderfully mysterious runway show saying about the fashion industry? What did that feline inside her motel room symbolise? What is the metaphorical meaning behind the clothes they were wearing? What does it mean? What is it saying to us?
The answer is nothing, or not much. Another answer is who cares. These images are provocative and that is more than enough. There is no need to attach meaning to them. As one character succinctly puts it: "beauty isn't everything - it's the only thing." Bafflement and mystery is a perfectly acceptable, if not the more enriching reaction for a film like this.
In the opening scene, Cliff Martinez' score begins with the sound of shimmery, delicate beats then slowly morphs into something more sinister, but strangely alluring. If I were to imagine this score visually, I would see a shower of pretty glitter that eventually cuts like broken glass. Accompanying this soundscape, is the image of Jesse (Elle Fanning), lying lifeless on a couch with blood dripping from her neck and along her milky-white skin. The camera moves forward and back, animating this static image and then cuts to Dean (Karl Glusman) her sort-of boyfriend photographer with a camera in hand, gazing towards her. Later we see Jesse wiping the fake blood off her body.
Opening with this fabricated image sets the tone perfectly. Everything we are about to see is artificial. Even the dialogue sounds manufactured, like it was formulated as an advertisement. "Who wants sour milk when you can have fresh meat?", a model asks. The directors own stamp 'NWR' appears during the opening credits. By branding his own movie, Refn makes it clear that this is a feature-length advertisement for his obsessions as a director. A commercial about beauty and style made with beauty and style.
Elle Fanning is perfectly cast as the naive Jesse, an aspiring model, who has just arrived in L.A. Here, she quickly becomes the pretty, shiny, new plaything. But it is Jena Malone who stood out. She plays Jesse's make-up artist and friend and she fashions complexity out of a simplistic role. She plays the maternal figure to Jesse while also playing her seductress. She delivers her lines in equal parts nurturing and titillating ways.
This is a mesmerising and visually fascinating film. To dig deeper is futile - you'd hear a thud on first shovel. It is best enjoyed less as an exercise in hermeneutics and more as a mysterious, experiential piece of cinema.