Hypermasculine male protagonists have steered the sensory and stoic qualities of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. The wielders of violence, whether it’s the clench of Ryan Gosling’s fists in Only God Forgives, gripping a hammer in Drive, or Tom Hardy’s sturdy physical constitution in Bronson, have unleashed their brand of violence through brute male force; aggression in its physical form, in Refn’s films, is a purely masculine trait.
And so we begin The Neon Demon with Jesse’s (Elle Fanning) lithe body, supine on a divan, with blood splattered across her chest. The pallor of her skin contrasts the vivid red as Refn pulls his camera back, cutting to a young man behind a camera lens, his flash capturing the scene. It’s the images that are captured in this moment that Jesse will use to sell herself as a commodity to the fashion world - a fashion of mourning.
“Straightforward” may not be the first word to describe Refn’s cinema, but it’s among the chief narrative characteristics of The Neon Demon. The opening hour of the film is steeped in the familiar: Jesse’s arrival to L.A., her ascent in the fashion industry, and her subsequent decline. Yet less A Star is Born, more Showgirls, Refn indulges in his brand (a “NWR” is monogrammed through the opening credits, while “Nicolas Winding Refn” presents The Neon Demon with Amazon Studios) of neon sleaze, perverting every frame and mutating the familiar and rote into something eerily pulchritudinous. Much of it is on the nose, to be certain, but I suppose it’s all in the presentation: an early conversation between Jesse and a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) is shot with adjacent mirrors, the images reflected, two, three times over in a sort of kaleidoscopic suggestion of tumbling down the rabbit hole.
So why aren’t Refn’s perversions of beauty in the first hour as successful as the second? Amid his exploration of the vapid and superficial, Refn tends to escalate the picture’s quota of bizarre to new heights. It’s not that amplifying the bizarre is a defect, but rather that the films that succeed in this amplification are typically anchored by an undeniably human component. Think of the difference between Kyle MacLaclan’s naïve hero in Blue Velvet and the comic caricatures of Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern in Wild at Heart and you’ll understand what I’m getting at. The blank slate of inexperience that is Jesse is only thinly sketched. The first half where her character is filled in are the most compelling sequences, particularly as she confesses her inexperience to the photographer found earlier in the film, whereby she openly embraces her beauty as her singular skill. It’s a compelling moment, delivered impeccably by Fanning, who strips the dialogue of any narcissism or irony; there’s something troubling and sad about a young woman whose chief asset is her looks. But Refn’s esoteric tendencies get the best of him, opting for obscure perversity instead of anything especially human.
Refn initially invites you to look at a character that is naïve to her beauty. To imagine a woman who is among the best in the world at something, at anything. And to see her come-of-age, to embrace her narcissism; to see her become deformed with beauty. That aspect of The Neon Demon is some of the acutely identifiable and true components of Refn’s cinema. It’s the other bits; the necrophilia, cannibalism, and lesbian-vengeance narrative that Refn adopts that just don’t jibe with my sensibilities. Yet this is how Refn defines feminine aggression. Whereas masculine aggression in his films has typically been associated with the physical (a trend continued in The Neon Demon e.g. Keanu Reeves, as a motel proprietor/pimp, imposing his phallic razor onto Jesse), Refn portrays women as consuming one another, back stabbing, and isolated within insular communities. Even most of the violence, as the film’s bitter ending attests to, is largely self-inflicted. Aggression, in its feminine form, eats you from the inside and out.