Nicolas Winding Refn is the sort of auteur — always auteur — who takes that line about models eating their own literally. From her wispy figure Jesse (Elle Fanning) doesn’t look like she’s eaten a thing, though. “That deer-caught-in-headlights look,” make up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) points out after Jesse’s first stint. Whether Jesse will wise up fast is one of the points of tension in The Neon Demon, the latest in Refn’s series of rococo roundelays. Fans of Refn will revel in this, the most realized of his depictions of colorful zombie-eyed anomie. But as the film inches towards its grotesque conclusion its devotion to surface becomes, ah, self-cannibalizing. The Neon Demon wants it both ways: to be shallow and to present the shallowness with the depth of a frieze.
He’s found the right actresses too, as cool and remote as an L.A. side street in April shadows. Fanning, often worried enough about her looks in other movies to make her on camera movements rather thick, is the exception. Whatever the undefinable charisma that fellow models spot in the competition Jesse has coming out of her pores; she’s the right kind of ingenue. After that first photo shoot she’s signed to an agency without a fuss and without wrangling over the legal and moral implications of employing a seventeen-year-old. Just say you’re nineteen, for “eighteen is too on the nose,” the boss advises her, and because Christian Hendricks of Mad Men plays the boss the advice has the sound of lived reality. So does another bit of counsel: “People believe what they are told.” Jesse is on her way: sessions with a photographer who insists on a closed set so he can ravish her with gold paint; an audition for a designer (Alessandro Nivola) who audibly gulps when Jesse does The Walk — not much differently from everyone else, I must say, but that’s why the designer makes the bucks and I write for a blog.
In my limited experience with Miami fashion circles, I can attest to Refn’s getting the small things right. He nails the tone of rehearsed professional courtesy from men and women with the power to change lives. “Let’s see the walk, dear. Thank you,” says the designer’s assistant over and over to failed applicants, presumably several hours a day all week. He gets the dispassion with which the models discuss plastic surgery. “Body shop, or, as he calls me, the Bionic Woman” goes one exchange between Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), Jesse’s nemeses. That these young women — these girls — look as if they’ve never experienced so much as a blackhead is one of the few subtle intimations of humor that Refn permits himself. A party scene early in the picture, set in a monstrous club built like the estate in Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and decorated in red marble and Gothic chic, makes an excellent marriage between Bret Easton Ellis and David Lynch: the kind of party where women hold drinks they’re not drinking, hold conversations no one’s listening to, and catch a band everyone ignores. Behaving as posing — for the sake of unseen spectators, or, as should be obvious, those of us sitting in the dark.
The small things, to repeat, Refn gets right, but the failure of The Neon Demon rests on Refn’s treating small things as big things. The late F.O. Matthiessen once defined decadence as — I paraphrase — overvaluing the parts of a whole. Refn’s fetishizing of detail doesn’t flirt with decadence: he luxuriates in decadence, gives the decadence a glacéed finish. His DP Natasha Braier deserves the kind of above-the-credit mention that Orson Welles bestowed on Gregg Toland. From the multicolored baubles that rain down in the film’s opening crawl and the strategic use of slow motion to the lighting of a poolside set as if it were ready to run as page 72 of next May’s Vogue, Braier seems to take seriously the Nivola character’s attempt at wisdom, shared with Jesse at a rundown lounge that is the ideal location for sophisticates looking to slum: “If you’re not born beautiful, you never will be.” The problem The Neon Demon, however, is thinking it’s born beautiful. The meticulous images look weighted, like a dowager loaded with jewelry. Any hint of wit gets flattened by his overdeliberate pacing and crowded compositions; The Neon Demon has the most hysterical collection of beautiful woman smeared with color in urban spaces since Red Desert. The other obvious forerunners are Irvin Kershner’s 1977 kitsch classic Eyes of Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway at her most alluring as a kinky fashion photographer, a female Helmut Newton, with psychic premonitions) and Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake of Cat People, from which Refn borrows one of his predetermined bits of surrealism: when Jesse finally gets into her locked hotel room, she finds a panther on her bed.
Now, Cat People was a terrible movie: a Calvinist trying to relax with high-toned schlock and creating dreary, mephitic schlock instead; it’s like the movie had lead poisoning. Refn isn’t a moralizer; it’s not cool. But the triumph of sadomasochism and visual exploitation of women amounts to a endorsement of amorality. He’s no cynic, though: insofar as Refn believes in anything except patterns of light on nipples, he believes in this exquisite soul rot. What attracts him isn’t violence so much as the glamour of violence: a knife slipped down the throat of a sleeping Jesse; menstrual blood spreading in a pool of Revlon red on a wooden floor. It isn’t enough that Jena, in unrequited love with Jesse, suffers exquisitely — Refn has to punish her for her feelings by filming a thwarted rape scene. Malone, who gives the movie’s only poignant performance, turns into a vulture. To foreshadow how the movie aestheticizes necrophilia, Refn and his scriptwriters have Jena moonlight at a morgue restoring cadavers (geddit?). What follows my readers can guess.
Even amoralists have soft touches. That’s why 2011’s Drive concentrated on Ryan Gosling’s quest to save a woman, Carey Mulligan, from bad guys (in that one the gradations of movement of Gosling’s toothpick to the other side of his mouth substituted for breast shots). In The Neon Demon, Refn films the by now required scene at the top of the Hollywood Hills, with Jesse and her cloddish quasi-boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman, looking like a young Michael Shannon) staring at the twinkling streetlights miles below, wondering when They’ll Make It. Indeed, every interaction with Dean is a wheeze. Keanu Reeves appears as a bearded and rather fit manager of Jesse’s flophouse, and I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be doing; it’s a relief in this context, though, that his the-fuck-am-I-doing daze has hardened into a get-this-shit-over-with carapace (I can believe Reeves told Refn, after bumping into each other in a lounge, that he’s got a week off and nothing to do).
Abjuring realistic narrative in the last fifteen minutes for a series of gruesome, expert montages and tableaux, Refn shows a rhythmic command that would be more impressive if it served material that didn’t expect the audience to go gaga over his supposed perversions. He’s like the guy in high school who told me his dog once made him hard. Whether I said, “I’m gonna call the cops” or “Gee, that’s cool” the trap was set — he was daring me to react. Andy Warhol isn’t cited much these days, I suspect because film and, more crucially for the former magazine illustrator, advertising have long absorbed his ethos: the affect-free, cryogenic motionlessness. These diamond dogs were civilized. The Neon Demon would rather be defined by what it fails to do than what it purports to give an impression about. To give an impression, to give a shit, after all, would cloud the sheen of Refn’s film. The Neon Demon is more accomplished than Only God Forgives, the 2013 farrago that should’ve gotten Refn sent alongside Henry Kissinger to The Hague for human rights violations. But it’s a gold-dusted trap, a stylized nothing, and I’m sure audiences will reject it. For all his distancing devices, The Neon Demon presents a series of well-dressed and attractive women who, to a symphony of yawns, get hurt. That it’s women hurting women instead of men is supposed to be progress in 2016. Give me The Bling Ring and Sofia Coppola’s other explorations of West Hollywood entropy. Give me Red Desert. Give me a hand job. Anything other than Afternoon of the Eaten Dead. He should change his name to Long-Winded and share starfucking stories on Adriatic cruises.