Thursday, June 30, 2016

Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing


Something this ravishing can be just as superficial as it wants—especially when superficiality is its whole damned point.

Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn
Written by Mary Laws, Polly Stenham, and Nicholas Winding Refn
With Elle Fanning (Jesse), Charles Baker (Mikey), Keanu Reeves (Hank), Karl Glusman (Dean), Bella Heathcote (Gigi), Abbey Lee (Sarah), and Jena Malone (Ruby)

Spoiler alert: mild

I am, in general, pretty down on capital-A Art Films.  Honestly, though, I'm not all that hard to please, and Nicholas Winding Refn just proved it, somewhat against my expectations.

I suppose the problem with too many Art Films is that they are "challenging" (which, in film criticese, serves as a handy synonym for both "fucking boring" and "completely nonsensical"), without actually offering all that much in return for taking their stupid challenges on.  So you'll often find them meditating upon vaguely-expressed themes, which their makers may or may not care about, and atop those themes shall be layered an unparsable, deliberately-obscurantist narrative that their makers clearly don't care about.  And sometimes, of course, they're just The Lobster, ugly anti-films that have perfectly readable plots and themes that I don't have the slightest interest in.  But I'm thinking more along the lines of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, or Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow, or—how about that!—Refn's own last fictional feature, Only God Forgives, which is boring even when it does make sense, thanks to a stultifyingly repetitive structure.  (Not to mention that abysmal lead performance, which we know now was accidentally provided by one of Ryan Gosling's many decoy robots, rather than Ryan Gosling himself, due to a scheduling error.)

Well, Refn's new film, The Neon Demon surely does not suffer from these issues: it is neither boring, nor is it that senseless.  And it is definitely not "obscure."  No: it is about our obsession with beauty, and although it's unwilling to posit whether this obsession is socially constructed or simply an unfortunate but ineradicable part of human nature, it recognizes that our world is built upon a simple and endlessly-oppressive hierarchy of aesthetic and sexual appeal, and it's sad about it.  Meanwhile, the women of Demon, valorized and victimized alike, all turn out to be terrifyingly enthusiastic volunteers in their own objectification, not to mention the objectification of everyone else, and they are committed, in both theory and in practice, to a total submission to the gaze.  They have come here to be consumed.  And they may (or may not) learn that this is unhealthy.

Now, bear in mind that this is not "interpretation"; Demon makes its point so blatantly, and so often, that I feel kind of like an idiot for even writing it down.  But—on the other hand—the stunningly blunt harangue of Demon's screenplay arrives only alongside a whole lot of bizarre cinematic formalism, coming as close to the edge of complete and total abstraction as virtually any narrative film ever has.  Thus the things people say (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the things people do) function much more as helpful footnotes to what Refn's really making here, which is, in case you didn't know, more-or-less a psychedelic music video that you can go watch in a movie theater.  And the video Refn wound up making is dedicated to wonderful, wonderful things: to literally-unbelievable lighting that sculpts human figures out of solid color and hyper-Expressionist shadows; to vast stores of symbolist bombast; and (above everything) to Cliff Martinez' absolutely mesmerizing electronic score, easily the best of his three collaborations with Refn—which, you know, is a huge, huge compliment, insofar as Cliff Martinez was the only human being to walk away from Only God without anyone saying something terrible about his mother.

So: to be a little bit more specific, Demon focuses principally upon our heroine—or, depending upon your point of view, our villain—and this is Jesse, a sixteen year old orphan who arrives in Los Angeles with, as she puts it, nothing but her looks.  She finds that they both give her power over the world around her, and make her a target for exploitation, for attempts at rape, for endless jealousy, and for even worse things than that.  Taking up modeling, she is instantly pushed toward stardom, making an enemy of every other model she meets, whose plastic surgery (and inability to stay teenagers forever) are nothing compared to a fresh face.  And this is the fact of the matter, even though—at least in the casting and in the telling—there is virtually no qualitative difference that you will be able to discern between Jesse and her competitors, except that if Jesse came onto you, you'd be somewhat more likely to ask for ID.  I'm almost certain this was even done on purpose, and it probably does represent the cutthroat world of fashion better than we'd prefer to think, wherein standards are pushed so high—and in such strange and esoteric directions—that no objective observer would be able to so much as decode the rules that govern a cruel and seemingly-arbitrary game.  (And, if you doubt this, go watch any season of America's Next Top Model or Project Runway, where the only thing you can ever count on is that inexplicable subjectivity will reign supreme.)

What we have, then, is a tale as old as movies: just one more backstage melodrama.  It's possibly the most straitjacketed subgenre outside of the cradle-to-grave biopic—but, usually, it's a lot more fun.  In any event, the Screenwriting 101 building blocks of Jesse's story make it singularly easy to just roll with what's happening, because there was a potential version of Demon that didn't have any dialogue at all, and would be practically just as easy to follow (and very possibly a better movie, too, but we'll get to that in a second).  The girl arrives with a dream; she fights for fame and fortune; and, obviously, she does get it; but at what cost.  So, yes, it's The Red Shoes.  Even more accurately, it's Showgirls, only with Natasha Braier's ecstatic cinematography standing in for Elizabeth Berkeley and co.'s batshit histrionics.

What this means, ultimately, isn't really that much—only that the narrative content of Demon is vastly, vastly more endurable than Only God Forgives' anti-revenge fable, which of course remains a deeply frustrating exercise in a film steadfastly refusing to do what its chosen genre demanded of it.

But, love it or not, let's be real: "endurable" probably is the right word.  The story is so basic it could be told in half an hour if the director and his co-writers had wished to, though Demon runs nearly two, and the plot that fleshes it out is only marginally distinguishable from the premise as stated.  As for the dialogue and performances that give Demon (its semblance of) life, well, they range from the essentially passable to the legitimately terrible.  Sometimes they're even great and awful within the very same person: Keanu Reeves' one-note predator, in particular, is rendered with the kind of cartoon verve you'd wish was contagious to all the other performers, while Jena Malone, as a throwback stereotype of a lesbian predator, is busy meeting Reeves in the middle from the other side.  But then, sometimes they're just plain awful: Karl Glusman, as Jesse's chickenhawking quasi-boyfriend who thinks he can win her heart with appeals to an inner beauty she neither possesses nor desires, is so bad that I assume he must be either illiterate or nearsighted, because the man cannot even read his lines off the cue cards Refn has clearly provided for him right off-camera.  (But, to their everlasting credit, Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote, as Jesse's rivals, do appear to have actually memorized their dialogue.)

And, of course, that does leave us with our lead, Elle Fanning (then sixteen), doing better than you'd have any right to expect in creating Jesse.  Fanning, although direly inconsistent, almost manages to impose an arc upon Jesse that the screenplay only feints at.  At her very, very best, she even provides a glimmer of the nameless magic that everyone else apparently must see in her—namely, a self-knowledge that permits her to actually love herself (or her own body, which in her conception, is the same thing) in a way that none of her image-disordered competitors ever could, which is the main thing that ultimately drives them into a frenzy over the sheer unfairness inherent to a world where it is made very clear to us from birth that we're not all created equal.  So let's give Demon its due: it's about people who are actively engaged in killing their humanity, but haven't quite finished the job, and that gives the film just enough personality to get by, even if in any other context it probably wouldn't even be adequate.

The problem, then, isn't Demon's story, which is secondary anyway: it's when story and gonzo formal experiment actually intersect, in what (for lack of a better term) we'll call this film's third act.  It manifests, naturally, as a descent into full-on horror—after all, a little horror tends to sneak into the back half of any proper backstage melodrama, albeit rarely so literally.  But Refn, who never stopped being a dickhead, just because everyone hated Only God Forgives, springs directly from the first stirrings of Demon's climax and right into the endless longeurs of its denouement, all in the space of a single cut.  (Meanwhile, he forgets that melodramas have melodrama, and Jesse's self-coronation as the queen-bitch of L.A. could've used a little bit more than one short declamatory speech.)  Frankly, it starts to drag, not least because for the first time, Martinez falls silent for an extended period.  He leaves us with nobody but the remaining models to listen to, and this is not necessarily wise; not even if Refn's compositions and Demon's final shock are, on their own, nonetheless quite worthwhile things to see.

But a mishandled ending—and perhaps I exaggerate just how mishandled it is out of mere peevishness, for I shall admit that I was also more than a little confused by it—is a small price to pay for what The Neon Demon does right, and what it does right is marry its form to its function in a way that somehow manages to be exhilarating, in spite of everything dickish and awful that, truthfully, is inherent to the whole damned enterprise.  First, you have Elle Fanning herself, playing a child exploited within one industry, while (essentially) Refn does largely the exact same damned thing.  Meanwhile, the depth and humanity that its heroine seeks to excise from herself is reflected, in what amounts to breathtaking nerve, within a formal construction that is itself style attempting to be devoid of substance, worshipping at the altar of pure aesthetic: hypnotic lightshows that flash and whirl; solid spaces of white like a void; people posed like corpses and corpses, ahem, used like people; indeed, perverse sexual imagery from one end of the film to the other; and, of course, Jesse's own nightmare-hallucinations, centered upon the titular Demon itself, a flattened series of glowing blue triangles against an abyss of endless black, and this is where narrative sneaks its way back in, by way of Refn's image, for the Neon Demon can hardly be read as anything but a devil-goddess to whom Jesse has sold her soul in exchange for her own set of keys to hell.  Indeed, maybe if you just try hard enough, her vision of the Demon can substitute for the character development that Refn couldn't give less of a shit less about.  But, you know, if it can be a metaphor for anything else—that is, beyond its construction as a hyper-abstracted female body, reduced to nothing but two breasts and a vagina—then what it's also a symbol for is Refn's enslavement of every human in the frame to one hell of an utterly remorseless geometry.

The unfortunate fact is that Refn seems to have lost his bet with himself: once again, most folks aren't pleased with the results, and even if there's a better case for it this time around, it's not because he was misunderstood, it's because even if it is brilliant, it's still prickish, in a way seemingly calculated to alienate everyone but folks like me, who can be bought off with crap that glows in the dark long enough for the message he's sending to start to make sense.

It is clear, of course, that the better movie that Demon could have been was also the one that Refn would never make—that is, a movie a lot more like his cult hit Drive, a formally pristine experience in both senses of the word, where both aesthetic and narrative came together like a flawlessly-tooled machine.  It seems more and more like a fluke these days; and, from what I understand, Refn actively hates the thing.  That, you know, is an awful shame, considering that Drive saw him (intentionally or not) managing to integrate his influences, for once, into one completely coherent package, especially his beloved Stanley Kubrick.  Sure, Kubrick may have been just as eager as Refn to experiment with silence and surrealism and, of course, with a great deal of "unconventional" acting—and yet Kubrick also tended to use those elements for better reasons.

But that's okay: there are few films that dare more than The Neon Demon; fewer still that actually manage to achieve what it achieves, in its raw and unrelenting spectacle; and almost none manage to do it without straight-up knifing their stories in the gut.  So, yes: sometimes even an obnoxiously self-satisfied Art Film like this one, coming directly from the ass of a director who has apparently established his permanent residence there, can still be great—even if it isn't even good, in a whole lot of seemingly important ways.

Score: 9/10

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