By Javier Calvo
Last year, the applauded The Witch tackled the witchcraft theme from the perspective of a historical revisionism of puritanism, social stigma and the oppression of the social and familiar institutions. Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, another great film about black magic and witches, adopts an almost opposite perspective. Instead of History, it offers myth and folklore. Instead of Cotton Mather and John Hale, it evokes the Brothers Grimm, Angela Carter and J. G. Ballard.
The story behind The Neon Demon couldn’t be older. As Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, it deals with innocent girls leaving the right path while they cross the forest. And Refn’s Los Angeles is a truly terrifying forest, made up of dazzling parties, empty and incomprehensible; motels ghostly haunted by sexual aggression; agencies directed by ruthless caryatides; sinister ritualistic photographers; predators and succubae. Men and women reduced, with no exception, to the condition of lycanthropes and witches in a world without a single ray of light, in which good has been banished.
The innocence of the main protagonist, Jesse (Elle Fanning), and of her friend Dean (Karl Glusman) can’t survive in such a world. They’re an unresourceful Hansel and Gretel. Jesse arrives in the great evil city and everything goes well until she realises it’s her purity what fascinates everyone. All doors are open to her and she has all fashion’s hierophants at her feet. As soon as she realises this, she falls.
Few scenes have impressed me so much in later years as Jesse’s fall. In a virtual space created by the abyssal regression of the camera shooting it, the wild and pure child has a demonic vision. In the scene, filmed as a Kenneth Anger stroboscope or a Jodoroswky ceremony, Jesse sees a neon magic triangle that is also an unfolded prism; an infinite regression of the same triangle figure, it can’t stop reflecting itself and unfolding. She’s trapped in the reflective logic. Her image also unfolds and she can no longer stop seeing herself. Wherever she goes, she will always unfold into who she is and also who looks at whom she is. As a kind of culmination of this narcissistic torture, we see her kissing herself on the lips.
Refn knows that fashion editorials are the new fairy photography, an angelic phantasmagoria without a reference in mundane reality. In fact, all the film is shot as though it were a fashion editorial, and that’s exactly what gives it its otherworldly quality. On the other hand, the resulting compositions allow him to create demonic altarpieces that escape narrative logic and enable him to talk to us as a pure experimentalist. This is the case of the opening sacrificial divan scene or of the final swimming pool photo shoot.
The Neon Demon‘s collaboration between Refn and director of photography Natasha Braier (Somers Town, The Rover and En la ciudad de Sylvia, which in its own way was also a film about photographed fairies) is heading toward building a map of film references that are exactly what fashion has appropriated in the last decades to build a language between surrealist and Gothic. Rosemary’s Baby, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Scorpio Rising, The Shining and The Clockwork Orange, Suspiria, Twin Peaks, Crash.
Like Rosemary’s Baby (or The Wicker Man or Kill List), The Neon Demon takes its place in the tradition of films about the appearance of the pagan, of sacrifice and atavism in the life of mundane characters. A pagan trend here represented by the amazing witch triad: Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee Kershaw).
Jena Malone, ubiquitous secondary actress, versatile and often discreet, plays here her most interesting role since Inherent Vice. With clear Elizabeth Bathóry touches, her character, Ruby, is a metaphysical make up artist with the power of transmuting the live and the dead to help them cross doors towards other worlds. Sarah, one of her protégées, is a living voodoo doll built through scalpel strokes and self-injuries. The three form the film’s terrifying dark heart.
The Neon Demon is, without a doubt, Refn’s most daring film. The rough cut taking place at the exact hour of the film seems to have been purposely designed to alienate Drive fans. The first hour is a cold thriller, mesmeric and refined; at some bits it seems to point towards a similar place than Cronenberg’s Map to the Stars. The second half is a surrealist-gore nightmare, with strange rituals and self-parodic madness. I personally think that viewer and critics’ wrath before this fascinating and challenging film only adds to it a considerable extra pleasure.