In Neon Demon, director Nicolas Winding Refn is more self assured than ever. The guy who was once experimenting is now a fully-formed artiste unabashedly striving for a masterpiece. While he seems confident in his ability to have an artistic vision and execute it, he still seems resistant to the idea that he may have matured. He could be gorgeous and ethereal and lyrical and subtle (all those great pull quote words) if he wanted, and Neon Demon often is. But Refn refuses to let go of his idea of himself as provocateur. He seems to want simultaneously to be cooed over by snooty gallery folk while flipping them the bird with both hands and telling them to eat sh*t.
Before my screening, a guy who runs a local midnight movies program came out to tell us that Neon Demon represented Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive, Only God Forgives) at a turning point in his career, a culmination of him finally “pushing himself out of the world of ‘cohesive cinema.'”
The collective groan was palpable at this point, because usually when a director (or some pompous guy with a microphone who talks before screenings) tells you that he couldn’t be bound by traditional plotting, it means that he wanted people to see him as an artist without having to go through the usual trouble of, say, coming up with a consistent vision first. Throw it at the screen and let the audience figure it out! Be mysterious! Artists do, audiences interpret! That’s how that usually goes.
Neon Demon isn’t that. While it is light on plotting in the traditional sense, and much more driven by cool visuals, it also doesn’t flail around wildly trying to be provocative (as, say, David Lynch can do on occasion). Neon Demon isn’t traditional, but it also isn’t needy, and it’s nearly always on brand. Refn, who may have gotten that neediness out of his system when he prominently featured his own name in the opening and closing credits roughly 17 billion times, including a fancy “NWR” underneath the title card (a monogrammed movie!), feels more naturalistic in his oddballness, less curated. His approach feels less “Well, aren’t I deliciously strange?” and more a Hansel-esque “Who cares? It’s only movies.”
His obsession this time around is beauty. Specifically, ephemeral nature of; systems fed by. His muse is Elle Fanning, who turned 18 in April, in the kind of role I never imagined she had in her (more because she was a child than because I was underestimating her, but still). Perfectly befitting his theme, Refn captures her in that fleeting transitional moment, when she can look entirely childlike in one scene and every bit a sexual being in the next. It’s a magic trick, based on lighting, mood, and styling, which highlights both the way beauty can be manufactured and desire manipulated, and draws attention to Refn’s ability to manufacture and manipulate them. It’s a neat trick, and Refn is nothing if not a clever craftsman.