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‘The Neon Demon’ wants to critique societal narcissism, but it can’t get over itself

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'The Neon Demon' Official Facebook Page

(‘The Neon Demon’ Official Facebook Page)

At one point in “The Neon Demon,” a sleazy fashion designer delivers a line that adorns some of the film’s promotional posters:

“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

It’s one of many pieces of dialogue in writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest feature that clumsily hammers the point home: in the world of modeling, how people see you is everything, and the more people ignore you, the less valuable you become.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a teenage runaway who wants to make it as a Los Angeles model. She is beautiful. We can confirm this fact because others say so. Loudly and often.

What’s more, she knows that she’s beautiful, and her fellow models hate her for it. So intense is their hatred of Jesse and her self-love that they plot to destroy her. “The Neon Demon” presents Jesse as something of a tragic hero unable to change the inevitable fate of all young girls who enter a predatory industry.

So if Refn wants to position Jesse as a tragic figure, what’s her fatal flaw? Jesse’s greatest sin, it seems, is that she doesn’t need others to reaffirm that she’s attractive. Her crime is that she loves herself.

Oh, give me a break.

Yes, really, Jesse had the nerve – the sheer audacity – to actually have a sense of self-worth, and such hubris begs for punishment. In case the point isn’t any clearer, Jesse talks about how everyone, her mother especially, always saw her as “dangerous.” She invites this abuse, you see. High self-esteem is synonymous with narcissism, so remember to keep your ego down to the size of a breadcrumb. Or else.

In an interview with Vulture, Refn called the film “beyond feminist,” and even dedicates the film to his wife (right after he emblazons his initials over the end credits). Yet if “The Neon Demon” wants to tackle the misogyny of the fashion industry, the fact that it clearly hates women seems like somewhat of a stumbling block.

Moreover, if one were to excuse the fact that the central thematic thrust of the film rings like a men’s rights activist screed, “The Neon Demon” doesn’t seem to have much of anything worthwhile to say – a first for a Nicolas Winding Refn film. Did you know that the entertainment industry is hollow, vapid and cutthroat? If you’ve never seen “All About Eve,” “A Star is Born,” or literally every single movie about show business ever made, then I guess this information might be news to you.

As per usual in a Refn film, characters deliver all of their dialogue as if they were staring forlornly off into the sunset, even when they’re really just looking into a plate of sushi. When it comes to Refn-speak, there’s a sliding scale between hauntingly ethereal and unnaturally stilted, and “The Neon Demon” tends to skew toward the latter. It doesn’t help that it feels like half of these lines were delivered in front of a mirror. Did I mention this movie is about narcissism?

As for the actors themselves, well, they’re fine enough. Elle Fanning makes the same “deer in headlights” face throughout the entire film, whereas real-life model Abbey Lee actually delivers a fun, catty performance as one of Jesse’s green-eyed rivals.

Christina Hendricks, meanwhile, only appears in a single scene as a no-nonsense Anna Wintour-esque executive, and she’s perfect. Keanu Reeves (yes, really) plays a loathsome motel owner with a go-nowhere subplot that seems to exist solely so that the movie can indulge in “Lolita” fetishism and mindless cruelty.

The introduction of his character, believe it or not, actually raised my hopes that this movie would have something grander to say about the abuse of girls by powerful men (Jesse also has an unfortunate encounter with an ersatz Terry Richardson), but it only ejects his arc for more nonsense meditations on how women “invite danger.”

Look, it’s not as if the rest of Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography should be thrown into the wastebasket because of this flop. The way he chased off more brutish “Drive” fans with “Only God Forgives” (still one of the most underappreciated movies in the last decade) will always earn my respect.

His technical talent as a filmmaker – along with his ability to invoke cinematic experiences that churn one’s guts into Silly Putty – shines through on every occasion. “The Neon Demon,” an accurate title if nothing else, is gorgeous to behold. The opening shot of Jesse posing as a blood-soaked corpse, set to the pulsing score of Cliff Martinez, is a genuine hair-raiser.

But on a symbolic level, it’s beyond eye roll-worthy. I get it already. Modeling is artificial and ultimately unfulfilling and so on and so forth. Refn movies have always skewed toward style over substance, though there has always been at least some intellectual grizzle to chew on beneath all the glitter.

But here Refn doesn’t even recontextualize these old sexist tropes in an interesting way like, say, “Antichrist,” a genuinely great movie also made by a director with deep-seated issues with women. While both Refn and “Antichrist” director Lars von Trier fall under the umbrella of “problematic artists,” the latter at least manages to take his own misogynistic baggage and deconstruct it in a way that implies some cognizance of his flaws – self-awareness that Refn does not appear to possess.

Perhaps something will click with me upon repeat viewings. The film’s message feels so retrograde that I want to believe that Refn is smarter than I’m giving him credit for, and there’s just some detail I may have missed.

Then again, if Refn’s ultimate point is that young girls bring about their own “ruin” because of their alleged unchallenged immaturity and juvenile fantasies, it seems hypocritical for the filmmaker to indulge in those two qualities at every opportunity.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]

About the Writer
Nate Taskin, Assistant Arts Editor
Current media is way too hooked on past glories and it’s part of a wider toxic cultural mentality.
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