MIFF 2016: The Neon Demon

What does it say about the current crop of emerging independent filmmakers that it took a 45-year-old Dane to distill millennial ennui to its purest form and violently thrust it onto the screen? Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is an affront to accepted ideas of good taste, storytelling and restraint, and it will be hated by almost everyone who sees it. It’s also perfect.

Ever since his 2011 turning point Drive, Refn has been progressively concentrating his films’ visceral atmosphere. Story and character have been diminishing in importance as he strives to heighten the corporeal experience. You want colour? Every frame drips with neon light so unnaturally saturated it feels like you’re watching a cartoon. Music? How about pounding EDM or low volume buzzing, in every single scene. Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

By digging through the petty, self-absorbed lives of aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) and her fashion industry pals, Refn strikes upon a specifically 21st century form of anxiety, borne out of alienation from traditional ideas of self and society, where single-minded self interest is the only remedy, maybe even the only thing that matters.

Nothing that matters to us ever seems to really matter anyway. The young are dismissed as irresponsibly idealistic, too concerned with pie-in-the-sky notions of equity and not interested in good old fashioned hard work. But that's the only way we know how to operate in the world we've inherited, where our conceptions of what it means to be a functioning member of society don't apply any more and the goal posts keep getting moved to favour a generation convinced of their own exceptionalism.

Donald Trump could become President of the United States, a nightmare so horrific that we continue to flatly dismiss its possibility even as it inches ever closer to coming true. We trade memes all day to distract ourselves from the crushing realisation that our parents are conspiring to rob us of a future in order to make themselves a little bit richer in retirement, even though we're all going to die anyway. If we have nothing else to believe in, at least we can believe in ourselves. Seen in the eyes of baby boomers, an outright refusal to engage in a corrupt system, calibrated to exploit us, is laziness, which is really just another way of saying narcissism. And they’re absolutely right. To hell with everyone, I can be my own god. 

This is the world of The Neon Demon, all id and no super-ego. In such a world, the petty jealousies of aspiring models are elevated to the operatic. It’s a jungle out there, and everything that happens, every photo shoot, every fight, every sexual encounter, is at the same time the most important thing in the world and utterly meaningless. All life is a performance, whether you’re a supermodel or the manager of a sleazy motel, and the only thing that determines how far you’ll get in life is how much you’re willing to commit to your performance. Jesse knows she possesses something society truly values — feminine beauty — and she uses it and everything in her power to bend the will of others. Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

When she finds herself anchoring her first runway show, mere days into her fledgling career, she doesn’t care about the clothing, an adoring audience, or even respect from the establishment. At the end of the runway she imagines a mirror, reflecting her “deer in the headlights” look right back at her. She makes out with the reflection, because of course she makes out with her own reflection. Far from condemning this hyper-sexualised, hyper-self-aware narcissism, Refn celebrates it. When Jesse bites back at the suggestion that she’s trying to worm her way into a clique of more established models by snarling “I don’t want to be them, they want to be me”, it reads as triumphant, not conceited.

In concluding Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog speaks of looking into a bear’s eyes and seeing no animalistic kinship, “only the overwhelming indifference of nature”. If you look into Jesse’s eyes you’ll see only the overwhelming narcissism of human nature. But, really, it’s only a reflection. What could possibly be more narcissistic than sitting in a darkened theatre and watching two hours of delicious neon-lit cinematography set to thumping electronic music while the world burns around us?

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