How did Nicolas Winding Refn become one of the world’s coolest film-makers? How did we get to the point where when the slate for the competition at Cannes was revealed earlier this year, international websites like Indiewire kept focusing on whether or not ‘Jang’ – as his nickname is – would be included. The 45-year-old director has made ten films over his career, but the only real big international hit he has had was with Drive five years ago, and even that film was called a disappointment at the American box-office. Two years later Only God Forgives was booed at Cannes and ended up with just 37 out of 100 on Metacritic. And yet. When a VFX showreel from Only God Forgives was released, it went viral in film-circles, as many seemed in awe of the mundane tasks such as removing blinks and stabilising hand movements, that went into creating the unreal world of the film. And while Drive is probably still Jang’s only mainstream success, in the years since much of his filmography seems to be rediscovered, leading to films like Bronson or the Pusher trilogy becoming cult-films – with Pusher even receiving a British remake in 2012. Perhaps, just perhaps, the biggest cult director in the world is Scandinavian these days?
For the cult of Jang, good news: The Neon Demon might be the most Jang’ian film ever made. For all the absolute stylistic brilliance the director has shown for years, it has for a long time sometimes seen as a tendency to show off, as a showreel from a director still fighting for opportunities to make more films. The Neon Demon, though, in spite of being gross, dumb and provocative, still seems more relaxed than usual. At 117 minutes, it’s not long, but still, the longest film Winding Refn has ever made, with Only God Forgives only being 90 minutes by comparison. The longer runtime means a more leisured build, more time for psychedelic interludes, seamlessly woven into the film, but unfortunately also more dialogue scenes. Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive and Only God Forgives was famously tight-lipped, while, for instance, Mads Mikkelsen’s nameless character in Valhalla Rising was unable to speak. The characters in The Neon Demon talk, chatter, discuss beauty and youth, but they don’t really have anything to say. And as for several other writers/directors, for whom English is a second language, it can at times seem unnatural, with many lines coming off as badly written.
This makes several of the performances seem clumsy at first. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a young girl coming to LA with dreams of making it in the model industry. Everybody sees something completely amazing in the innocent young girl, but Fanning at first stresses her innocence and naivety so much that it’s hard to figure out what it is. This just makes her transformations in the second act that much more impressive, though, and as the film concludes her chameleonic performance is hard to shake. Jena Malone plays Ruby, a make-up artist who takes the younger Jesse under her wing, but whose almost motherly affection seems to hide something significantly darker. It’s the most demanding performance, the character that needs to be the most iconic, and Malone bravely jumps on every task she’s given. Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee plays Gigi and Sarah, two elder models, whose blankness is constantly compared to Jesse’s inner glow, so the actresses really don’t have anything to do other than seem scarily inhuman. Which they do aptly. On the male side, Karl Glusman plays Dean, the love interest, also the only normal human being, in all his clueless male privilege. A photographer himself, his relationship with Jesse might seem sweet but it’s still based on objectification: His question ‘What are you’ as Jesse takes charge of her sexuality is one of the most pointed lines in the film. Keanu Reeves plays Jesse’s creepy landlord Hank, creating a completely loathsome character, that nonetheless never really amounts to much.
If those character descriptions seem disjointed, well, it’s a disjointed film. Centrally, it’s about the evolution of Jesse into the character the beauty industry wants her to be, and the reaction of everyone around her, but characters like Hank never seem to change, and instead mostly fill the need for plot-turns. There is hardly any logic to the plot. The film instead seems driven by dream logic and genre tropes. There are sequences of incredible strange beauty in the film and other sequences that seems mostly ludicrous, and which will probably be up to every individual viewer. Mirrors are everywhere, the world is immaculately colour-graded, and time and space seem distorted throughout. In every night sky there seems to be a full moon, for instance. Much of the imagery is original and masterful. A bit of it seems done before, though. Much was made of the blatantly Freudian imagery at play in Only God Forgives, and this time, it seems as if Jang might have read a bit too much Jung. The female characters seem at time to restage old myths, as if their behaviour was cribbed from the collective unconscious. While at times striking, it also flattens the thematic depth of the picture, turning original thoughts into still references. In the end, the film perhaps does not cohere into much. It ends up a disjointed and weird concoction, but with enough unique moments to recommend it.