The Neon Demon

“Evil floats, weightlessly across the landscape of Los Angeles in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film, The Neon Demon, co-scripted with TV writer Mary Laws and British dramatist Polly Stenham. It is a reverie of such sheer satanic rapture that Refn could be on danger of taking Bret Easton Elis’ crown as the Aleister Crowley of the 21st century.”

It’s never a good idea to start your own review with a quotation from someone else’s, but the opening of Peter Bradshaw’s review, printed in The Guardian, is one of the most striking paragraphs I have come across in recent times. After reading it, I had to see the film.

The Neon Demon does not otherwise come highly recommended; most internet reviews are tepid as to the film’s quality. However, having followed Refn’s career and being largely underwhelmed, despite its moments of promise, I feel that I have to contribute my own opinion because this film is as ‘good’ as any film I have ever seen. In fact, The Neon Demon richly deserves the epithet ‘masterpiece.’

A learned friend of mine loves Refn’s film Drive, widely considered one of the best films of 2011. Personally, it left me cold; the best I can say about it is that it’s a simulacrum of a story, which might be part of what we get served at this point in culture to make sense of what has come before. The Neon Demon, however, may not redefine how cinema can tell a story, but succeeds in telling its cinematic story as well as a story can be told within that medium.     

If that sounds like hyperbolae, I apologise. However, a film doesn’t have to tell its story the way a novel does. In fact, comparing literature to film narrative, the film always comes off second-best. However, there are things a film can do that a novel or written work cannot, and this is where Demon excels.

The most common criticism of films is that ‘they aren’t as good as the novel’. This is a profound criticism if you’re talking about a piece of narrative art. A novel provides greater scope for telling an involving story over a longer period of durational time, as well as allowing direct insight into the interior reality of a character’s thoughts and emotions.

A film can’t do this in quite the same way. However, what it can do is generate profound emotional and psychological sensations, which are ‘meanings’ in the true sense of the word. 

Film is distinguished from all other art forms, says Sergei Eisenstein, by the edit; the ability to juxtapose one image with another to create a resonance between them. In this way, the film communicates through symbols rather than words; the real article, rather than the delay of a sign to point to the article itself.

In this way, also, the film viewer’s experience is more potent. In this sense, The Neon Demon is much closer to a dream or a hallucination; the film is described as being ‘horror’, but it is in no way generic, except for the fact that its climax will (for a sane, healthy viewer) evoke profound emotions of repulsion, distress and disgust. But this is on a purely visceral level; the film also seems to distance itself from conventional morality, which provides an even more intense ordeal for a viewer.

I disagree with Demon being categorised as a horror film. It isn’t that it doesn’t contain moments and images of horror, but more because the label ‘horror’ suggests a genre piece, structured around a series of ‘horrifying’ moments that rhythmically increase to an overwhelming experience of that nature.

The film’s horror is deferred until the climax, and in that sense, I think it is more accurately compared to a fairy tale, complete with cautionary overtones and dreamlike resonances.

A masterpiece is a work that delivers in every respect, and part of the great pleasure of watching The Neon Demon is that it really holds you, shot for shot. Every shot generates so much power through its attention to detail. Every shot has the compositional detail of a painting.

Even transitional shots as characters move from one location to another are complex and compelling. All kinds of interesting things are going on in terms of texture, symmetry and detail. The actor’s performances are then set in these beautiful compositions like jewels.

Like Bradshaw, I couldn’t really see what the film was doing until I’d seen the whole thing and didn’t really ‘enjoy’ it, and there is much to enjoy – until the second viewing. 

Possibly the stand-out feature of Bradshaw’s review is his use of the word ‘satanic’. It’s an interesting word, given there is no overt statement of religion, let alone Christianity, anywhere in the film.

The word evokes a deep, inalienable dimension of the human animal, like a Pandora’s Box where we keep our most intense emotions, especially those related to horror and fear. Refn skilfully opens this box and choreographs the figures that emerge.

I challenge any sane, emotionally healthy person to have a response to this film that is not, in this sense, of a religious intensity.

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