Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t know fashion, he doesn’t care about fashion, but most importantly, he doesn’t feel fashion. That’s why he’s copycatting Guy Bourdin in the rare occasions it is given screen time. But of course fashion is the least of The Neon Demon‘s concern. The closer but most elusive domain to cinema, fashion is a mighty beast to tame, and the list is long of directors trying to use it, either as satire or backdrop. Count this movie as another ill-advised foray into the carnivorous industry of youth, beauty, and the predatory behaviours it entails. Oh it’s beautiful to look at, and too clever by half. But it’s a ridiculous movie all the same.
There are a lot of questions to be asked about where Refn’s love for genre will take him at the expense of a coherent cinema. “Do you mind if I use you for that?” is a key phrase, said by a photographer to a model towards the end of the movie. This is definitely a question Refn should have asked Dario Argento before committing his feverish dream about the loss of innocence to film. To be honest, no one has ripped off Argento more shamelessly and unsuccessfully than Argento himself, and before the Suspiria remake hits the theaters next year, The Neon Demon might be the next best thing to the original. But as it the case with fashion, one will argue that Refn doesn’t get Argento either. He knows the notes but does not sing the tune; once again, it is not what interests him here. So, what does? Christianism, apparently, as was the case with Only God Forgives. It makes sense: after the Old Testament comes the New.
For some reason everything seems to be happening in bathrooms/toilets, at least the three best scenes. They play like a Christian allegory. The first one, in a dark club, has the Three Mothers (cleverly?) presented in reverse order, and the Mother of Tears, the most dangerous of all, has Jesse (Elle Fanning perfect as a preraphaelite nymph with porcelain skin), lured her out of her comfort zone and orally dissected by her two sisters, the Mother of Darkness, a top model who proudly lists her cosmetic procedures, and the Mother of Sighs, never the It girl to begin with and therefore on passive-agressive auto-pilot. This is as much temptation as it is a Holy Spirit visitation.
The second scene has Jesse meeting an unfortunate candidate for a runway show after she smashed the ladies room mirror. Jesse attempts to comfort her but is scorned for it. She cuts her hand on the broken glass. What follows is as sudden as it is ghoulish, a communion of sorts which emphasizes what is barbaric, vampiric, in the idea of drinking someone’s blood as a religious rite. In the audition scene itself, starting as the Malcolm McLaren video for Madam Butterfly, the way Refn uses sound is very clever: the models walk, and you can hear their shoes creaking on the white floor of the studio. The designer never looks up. When Jesse walks, there is no such noise pollution, so he has to look up, and she’s cast.
The third bathroom scene is the shocking one, with an apocalyptic blue pattern on the walls and the body horror you might have heard about. It is another hint at communion, in a potent mix of glossy styling and gore. It might also be the most ridiculous way a director as gifted as Refn can take this idea across to his viewers. The scene has to be seen, and can’t be unseen; it is both gross and weirdly disincarnate. The Neon Demon is not sadistic, not even voyeuristic. It makes an earnest attempt at figuring out what it is to be the most beautiful girl in the world, and guesses rightfully that she has to be punished for all the love and lust she inspires. It’s too bad the movie wasn’t shot in Japan as initially intended. Los Angeles is the wrong Petri dish to grow these alien life forms, reduced to one designer, one photographer and one make up artist (Jena Malone, poised even in the movie’s most incongruous foray into exploitation).
There is a thin line between using a genre form for such an aloof purpose and having the rubber, once stretched too far, snapping back in your face. The Neon Demon describes our iconisation of beauty as a pagan cannibalistic cult based on the debasement and consumption of virgins all too willing to sacrifice themselves to the titular demon, a vaginal pentacle devouring them whole at the end of a runway. The virgin thinks she gets a chance at becoming a Holy Trinity of herself, but instead of making her whole the demon slices her up, pixellating flesh and soul alike. There is definitely something Christian in that but, like barocco churches, there is so much imagery at work that it’s all to easy to get lost in looking and missing the point.