Refn’s film has all the hallmarks. It’s shiny, so much so that at times the screen dazzles. It’s shallow, so shallow that the lead is killed in an empty swimming pool. It has hidden depths, which are so hidden that they can only be represented by an abstract, demonic symbol. It’s provocative. So provocative that many critics have fallen for the bait and decried the film’s taboo-breaking, as though the guiding hand was Nietzsche’s.
Is this the twilight of the gods? It would be hard to make a case. Refn is more of a tease than a terror. There’s a scene of necrophilia but Roeg did this far more dangerously in Bad Timing. There’s cannibalism, but that’s off-screen. There’s very little sex. There’s a soft-porn lesbian shower scene, doused in blood, but it’s so kitsch you suspect that Refn finds this hilarious, not shocking. If anything this would appear to be a film which purports to be about smashing up the family china; but a film that never goes so far as to actually smash up the family china.
In contrast to received notions of sensationalist films, Neon Demon is stately in its pacing. More Bergman than Fast ’n Furious. The director and editor delight in the wondrous images captured by the DOP, Natasha Braier. Rightly so. This is a cinema of the image and the images are ravishing. There’s some neat dialogue supplied by the playwrights Refn has drafted in, but the plot is wafer-thin and the denouement has no tension. It’s an aggressively semiotic film: a film constructed out of images which are all about what we choose to see. We choose pretty young things. We choose baubles. We choose the surface. Perhaps the film’s most radical moment comes towards the end when one of the characters eats a regurgitated eyeball. Pop will eat itself.
Refn is a provocateur, not a theorist. People might detect allegories of how LA eats its young, or capitalism turns its young into products and then eats them, or how coming of age in a capitalist society is about preparing oneself to become a sacrificial lamb. All these readings and more would seem applicable. Like a Dali painting, the film’s bland but seductive surface allows for multiple interpretation. Which might be its skill, or it might be the Neon Demon’s achilles heel. If heels are something that neon demons possess.