It’s hard to not think of David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Dr.’ when watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘The Neon Demon’. Not only both the films share the same basic premise — of a young, vulnerable girl trying to make a career in LA — but Refn also seems to have borrowed heavily from Lynch (and Brian De Palma, to an extent) in terms of treatment of the story that involves a few dream sequences and many psychopathic characters. Though, while ‘Mulholland Dr.’ is an extremely well-written film with fully developed lead characters, ‘The Neon Demon’ is feebly written and relies more on style than substance. But the style in the film is not any style; it is Nicolas Winding Refn’s style. And I won’t be overstating if I say that style alone is enough to make ‘The Neon Demon’ quite a compelling watch.
The thing with Refn is that you can love his films or you can hate his films (one look at Rotten Tomatoes score, and you’ll notice critics are divided right in the middle), but certainly you can’t ignore them. I loved ‘Drive’. I even called it the most stylish film of the 21st century. I didn’t quite like ‘Only God Forgives’. But even that film is distinctively Refn-ish. ‘The Neon Demon’, to me, falls somewhere between those two films. Though, arguably, it is as stylish as ‘Drive’, if not more so. Its use of light, color, slowly panning wide-shots, sound and foot-tapping music is phenomenally entertaining. There were moments in the film where I didn’t particularly care about the story or the characters, but was still enjoying every bit of the aura that Refn has so masterfully created. I don’t know whether to call those moments, failure of Refn, the storyteller, or success of Refn, the visual-sound artist.
A couple of such moments arrive early in the film. One of them is a party cum fashion show scene, where Nefn uses light and darkness with a thumping background score to such brilliant effect that I was left completely mesmerized. The other scene involves a photo shoot, where a photographer asks Jesse (Elle Fanning) to get naked. Refn juxtaposes Jesse’s beautiful face against a white backdrop and lets the camera linger on her face as she nervously removes her clothes. Again, some extraordinary usage of color, light and music.
Elle Fanning, as the teen aspiring model Jesse, is perfectly cast. Of course, she has the looks that camera loves, but more than that, she also has got the acting chops — she, arguably, is the most promising teenage actor in business right now — and holds your attention even if she doesn’t get much support from the writing. Jane Malone, as the make-up artist in love with Jesse, is also terrific. One of her scenes involving necrophilia is quite reminiscent of Naomi Watts’ masturbation scene in ‘Mulholland Dr.’.
Cinematography and background score are the two biggest strengths of the film. While, the music has been composed by a Refn regular, Cliff Martinez (who also did ‘Drive’ and ‘Only God Forgives’), a relative newcomer, Natasha Braier happens to be the cinematographer. With so much of the story revolving around women’s physical beauty, I think Refn might have purposefully gone for a female cinematographer.
Overall, ‘The Neon Demon’ falls short of meeting the very high ambitions of its director, but it still is a bold commentary on the obsession with beauty in today’s day and age. Yes, the climax is problematic — I’m not sure if the final ten minutes were even required in the film — but even with all the shortcomings, the film is worth a watch on the big-screen due to its breathtaking visual and auditory sensations.