Nicolas Winding Refn is quickly emerging as cinema’s most controversial enfant terrible this side of Zack Snyder or Quentin Tarantino. This week saw the release of the Drive director’s newest film, The Neon Demon, and people have had some… reactions.
At Vox: "The Neon Demon tries to both fetishize and vilify young girls. It Fails." At CNN: "‘The Neon Demon’: Is this the most controversial film of 2016?" At Salon: "Is ‘The Neon Demon’ gruesome misogyny or brilliant feminist commentary? Can it be both?" It’s "profoundly stupid. It’s "the year’s best or worst movie." It’s "hot garbage that dares you to call it offensive."
Jezebel, never one to bury the lede, puts it succinctly: "Fuck The Neon Demon."
On paper, The Neon Demon was always going to look tawdry and clichéd. It’s the story of a 16-year-old aspiring model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), who moves to LA to chase the dream, only to find that the fashion world has a dark underbelly (like, cannibalism and necrophilia-dark). Jesse comes to find that she has a curious effect on everyone she meets— whether it’s agents or photographers or a pair of ruthless older models or a suspiciously friendly makeup artist or a creepy Keanu Reeves, Jesse manages to captivate every last one. There’s just something about her. You might even say she’s a bit of a Mary Sue— a frequently misleading and unhelpful term that refers, most generally, to a character, usually female, who is amazing at everything and adored by everyone, or, more precisely, to a character who seems to serve as an idealized stand-in for the author and gratifies his or her narcissistic impulses.
Refn has basically said as much: in a press conference at Cannes, he spoke of The Neon Demon as a way to "live out [his] perverse dream of being a 16-year-old girl, which I think every man has inside of him." Versions of this line crop up in nearly every interview he’s given about the film, and it’s just one of the many talking points on the Neon Demon press tour that sound pretty outrageous as pull quotes. You can find Refn saying that the film is "beyond feminist because it’s not quote-unquote political. But is it all about women? Absolutely." You can find him gushing about Elle Fanning the same way the lecherous designer in the movie gushes about Jesse: "She just has ‘that thing,’ which is that magical thing that God gives you, and very few people have it." You can find him asking a female journalist if she thinks she’s beautiful. One could argue that he overuses the word "penetrate" when describing his process.
Nicolas Wending Refn is known for directing films about manly men in manly crises with a manly (albeit lush, colorful, and experimental) style. Whether he hoped to be or not, he’s very much a dude’s director— an arthouse answer to Zack Snyder. Perhaps even a broteur. He can come across as cocksure in interviews, which only solidifies this impression. And when you get him talking about The Neon Demon, a work that addresses female identity issues, the result can come out looking suspiciously like the kind of douchey male feminist who’s only too happy to explain a woman’s experience, especially in the presence of women. It’s easy to root for that guy to fail, and I believe that a lot of critics have done just that.
I think there a couple of things to keep in mind here.
The first is that Refn projects the kind of outsized persona that often characterizes the directors of ambitious, provocative work— think of the good-natured grandiosity of Fellini and Ford Coppola and Iñárritu, the passionate polemics of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, the obscure aphorisms of Werner Herzog, the kooky unpredictability of Jodorowsky and Lynch. Now, of course, there are plenty of visionary directors who are able to give a perfectly even-keeled, humble, and circumspect interview. But if we understand the job of film director as the nigh-demiurgical task it really is, we tend to make allowances for certain quirks and pathologies that equip human beings to fulfill its titanic responsibilities. (For a survey of these, I recommend Elia Kazan’s lecture on the talent and temperament required to be a film director.) For directors whose work is truly daring (and whether Refn’s work qualifies here is up for debate), all the more so. A little anxiety, a little arrogance, and a little pugnacity are inevitable when you think your work is good, but you know your work is weird. The artist of the weird, in any medium, learns early on to be his own, and his only, advocate. In cinema, where the buy-in to play at the big table is usually seven digits long, you’ve got to be a bit bullish and grandiloquent just to convince people to let you do your job, make your living, and make your piece. And you’ve really got to put on your armor if you plan to make the kind of stuff that gets booed at Cannes.
I’ve always had a soft spot for celebrities who read like they’re bonkers in interviews. We often forget that press tours mean that an artist will be talking about their work— the same work— for months, with dozens and dozens of journalists, sometimes many in a day. If you read a lot of interviews from the same tour (as I have with Refn on The Neon Demon) you start to get a feel for the person underneath the pull quotes. Refn has a list of talking points— things he’s articulated to himself about the film, combinations of words he thinks will give the right sense of his work. Some of his explanatory conceits are obviously provocative— you know, the "there’s a 16-year-old girl inside of every man" and "art is meant to penetrate you" and "Hollywood is like a prostitute"— but you also get the sense that he really is trying to get at the ineffable, and he’s just using the most vivid language he can conjure up in the moment, throwing out new words and seeing what sticks.
You also get the sense that he really is trying to get at the ineffable, and he’s just using the most vivid language he can conjure up in the moment, throwing out new words and seeing what sticks.
There’s a scene in My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Liv Corfixen’s documentary about her husband shooting Only God Forgives, that illustrates what I’m talking about. Refn is talking to Ryan Gosling about his vision for the violence in the movie, and he says, "Violence is like sex." Before he can explain himself, Gosling turns to Refn’s wife (holding the camera) and smirks. Refn gives him a beat, but then tries to go on, talking about tempo and buildup, only to have Gosling turn back to Corfixen and smirk again. Refn chuckles, but he keeps talking— he really does have a point, and he’s going to keep trying to make it, even if it means getting called a madman or a pervert or a joke. As Flannery O’Connor said, in defense of her own mad, perverted imagery, "for the hard of hearing you shout; for the almost blind you draw large and startling pictures."
He also is joking, though.
Refn is a noted disciple of surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, a good point of comparison here. Jodorowsky’s films are shocking, visually and symbolically rich, and have been granted a place in the film canon. Jodorowsky is also prone to saying scandalous-sounding things in interviews ("I like violence! I love violence") that, on the page, sound very similar to Refn’s flights of fancy. But Jodorowsky has a flamboyant magnetism that lets him get away with it— rapid hand gestures, an irrepressible grin, and a thick accent that never lets you forget he’s working in his third language. Refn has a sense of play about his work as well, but, as a Dane, his mode of expression is much more muted, and he suffers from the difficulty of translating his native sense of humor. The absurd, deadpan exaggeration that characterizes Danish humor has also caused trouble for Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier.
And so we come to the question of whether Nicolas Winding Refn is a misogynist. This is, obviously, not the kind of thing we can ever truly know about a person we don’t know, so all we have is the public record and the art. There are certainly places where Refn has demonstrated good faith in his attitude toward women. In most of the interviews he’s given about The Neon Demon, he’s spoken of his curiosity about the experience of his wife and daughters: "I wasn’t born beautiful. My wife is. […] I wonder what that must be like?" When he reflects on society’s obsession with beauty, he thinks of his 13-year-old child: "I can see my daughter is becoming prey already." In the closing credits, Refn dedicates The Neon Demon to Liv (Corfixen).
He intentionally hired a female cinematographer (Natasha Braier) and two female playwrights (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) in order to have a strong female voice behind the film. The young women who star in the film have attested that Refn treated them as partners, respecting them throughout the creative process. Elle Fanning describes her surprise at the amount of freedom and influence she had during the making of the film: "I’d never worked that way before, as closely with a director. […] You feel this kind of power." Jena Malone recounts crafting the film’s infamous necrophilia scene alongside Refn, and voices respect for the way Refn prioritizes his family and considers the issues facing his daughters. Abbey Lee describes how Refn consulted her on life in the fashion industry and expresses gratitude for being "given a voice and […] asked for help."
None of this really matters if The Neon Demon is a misogynist film.
But it isn’t. It’s a mad, shimmering celebration of the young female id, a trip into a hot pink hell, a horrible gorgeous thing about horrible gorgeous things.
It’s a mad, shimmering celebration of the young female id, a trip into a hot pink hell, a horrible gorgeous thing about horrible gorgeous things.
The feminist allegation against Refn says that The Neon Demon reinforces sexist ideas of women as catty, competitive, and narcissistic, and that it peddles the notion of young girls’ beauty as being "dangerous." As Kaleigh Hughes puts it at Vox, "The only truly shocking thing about The Neon Demon is how Refn, a middle-aged straight white man with wealth, power, and influence, can be so absolutely convinced that it’s young girls who are the real threat in today’s beauty-obsessed society."
This reading presumes that the film is a cautionary tale about girls like Jesse, which I think misunderstands the film’s perspective, and, in fact, its medium. It comes of seeing The Neon Demon as a narrative drama first and foremost, a stylistic exercise second. Instead, I think this film is best approached as a work of visual art on a narrative theme, an expressionist mirror for an inner psychological experience. I think Refn does, too. It’s actually something Refn has been implying throughout his interviews: The Neon Demon is a 16-year-old girl’s fantasy. It’s not descriptive of the way that young women are; it’s a guilty teen nightmare rendered in pictures.
The Neon Demon isn’t "saying" that a teen girl’s beauty is dangerous. It’s a surreal fairy tale based on the kind of question that a teen girl might dare to ask herself in the quiet of her own mind: What if I were so beautiful that I were dangerous? What if I were so beautiful that I had power over other people— but also attracted intense jealousy, made others want to possess me?
"The irresistible beauty" is an old mythological trope— see Helen of Troy, Guinevere, Esmerelda— and no one is arguing that it’s a wholesome myth to perpetuate. But to describe is not to prescribe— the myth of irresistibility is still with us. This kind of power, this supernatural allure, is what women are sold by the fashion and beauty industry every day: buy this bra, this perfume, and you too might harness the power of pure seduction. Many young women are savvy enough to tune out the siren song, but many are not. I wasn’t. I have pretty early memories of poring over my mother’s Victoria’s Secret catalogues and drinking in the images of tanned Aphrodites in lace, untouchable and pure in their command of the human eye, and little me not certain if I wanted to touch them or bow to them or become them. We’ve absorbed so many images of women as alluring objects that it’s incredibly difficult not to wonder what it might be like to become one of those alluring objects, to be winning at the game that society tells us we’re playing. We spend all day looking at actresses and singers and models and it only makes sense that so many girls fantasize about careers where they will be gazed upon— why so many young women do move out to LA.
We’ve absorbed so many images of women as alluring objects that it’s incredibly difficult not to wonder what it might be like to become one of those alluring objects, to be winning at the game that society tells us we’re playing.
(An aside that I feel I should introduce sooner than later, lest anyone take offense: there are, of course, plenty of other reasons someone might want to become a model, besides being a narcissist. Most professional models, of course, are pretty casual about the being-gazed-upon part of the job. It’s a job, and it’s something they feel suited, trained, and qualified to do. But if a teenager fantasizes about being gazed upon, modeling is likely to be a form her fantasy takes. In any case, The Neon Demon is not chiefly meant to be an accurate, searching exposé of the modeling industry, any more than Only God Forgives is meant to highlight the financial challenges of operating a dojo, or Drive is meant to give a sense of a day in the life of the neighborhood auto repairman.)
There’s a scene early in The Neon Demon where Jesse goes on a date with a boy— an older boy, of course. They’re parked overlooking the city at night, and Jesse is walking prettily at the cliff’s edge, her delicate purple dress blowing in the breeze, looking out at the sky but feeling her date’s eyes on her. She tells him how, as a child, she used to think of the moon as a giant eye, and she would sneak out to the roof and call out to it: "Do you see me?" It’s a question that gets buried in many young girls’ hearts.
And 16 is a particularly self-questioning age. You’re a few years past puberty, setting into your adult body, but still so inexperienced. And you hear two dueling messages: on the one side, you have adults telling you that your body is dangerous and that you need to cover it up, or else. And you ask yourself, or else what? The message of danger carries with it a hidden promise: that you are powerful. But on the other side you hear the message of the beauty industry, which tells you that you aren’t enough, that you must buy more and be more and eat less to ever hope to attract the love and attention that you so crave. It can leave you hopelessly confused about your body and your worth. One minute, you’re afraid you’ll never feel desired or looked at or wanted; the next, you start to believe that you could have all the attention you wanted if you only knew how to wield your power, if you whispered the incantation and put on the makeup and wore the low cut top. As poet Marianne Williamson put it, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. / Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." In my experience, growing into a female body has meant walking the razor’s edge between both.
You have adults telling you that your body is dangerous and that you need to cover it up, or else. And you ask yourself, or else what?
This is the cultural brew from which a fantasy like Jesse’s arises. Jesse arrives in LA to pursue her modeling career, and immediately she finds herself at the center of both positive and negative attention— she’s groomed for stardom, but also subject to assault. She embodies the contradictions of society’s messages about young female beauty. Her rivals (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcoate) and her admirer (Jena Malone) embody young female fears about beauty— that you will seek and lose it, that you will go unseen and unwanted. These forces clash, and the result is bloody indeed. But The Neon Demon is coolly disinterested in punishing or passing judgment upon any of its characters. It is interested in elemental forces, in pure feeling.
Most reviews of The Neon Demon have granted that the film is stylish, but will bemoan what they call a lack of substance, which betrays a facile dualistic approach to art criticism. I, along with Susan Sontag, would urge that we "refuse to surrender to the shallow distinction of form and content," and remember that "art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world." When Nicolas Winding Refn says that The Neon Demon is about beauty, he doesn’t just mean that it explores the concept of beauty intellectually. He means to give the audience a sensory experience of beauty that has a raw, meaningful power in and of itself; he means to take us inside the intoxicating experience of glamour.
The Neon Demon is an aesthetic vision of femininity as construction, femininity as consumer product, femininity as weapon and armor. It’s the tapping of acrylic nails and the clicking of stiletto heels, the sheen of leather and vinyl, the sharp points of shoes and shoulder pads. It’s the buzz and shriek of the synthesizer, the garish palette of grape candy and aquamarine, the high-pitched belt of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. It’s glitter and diamonds, plastic and gold, neon and strobe. It’s lip stain and lip gloss and setting spray, the body and face as perfectible and sealable.
(Refn’s fascination with the style of the 80s is well documented— a style characterized by stylization, by artifice, by aggressively gendered posturing and play. Ryan Gosling in Drive is made in the image of Tom Cruise in Top Gun or Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club or Bruce Willis in Die Hard, a sex symbol in a white tank and a bomber jacket, biceped and pretty-faced and a little dirty.)
The most powerful scenes in The Neon Demon deal with a phenomenon too seldom depicted: the self-gaze. By the self-gaze, I don’t just mean looking in the mirror— people in movies do that all the time. I mean an intentional, considered meeting of one’s self, a surrender to the pleasure of one’s own image, a kind of enveloping self-love, almost a lust. The film doesn’t condemn or endorse it, but it does conjure it. There is a tense moment where Jesse finds herself alone with a famous photographer who asks her to disrobe: she is alone against an enormous white backdrop, completely exposed. The lights flicker off, and she has a moment of panic before the photographer reappears beside her and begins to paint her with gold body paint. She thought she was to be prey, and instead she is worshipped; she tilts her head back in rapture as he glides the gold up her neck, and the white of the backdrop now appears to be light radiating from her.
The most powerful scenes in The Neon Demon deal with a phenomenon too seldom depicted: the self-gaze.
The film’s most expressionistic sequence comes when Jesse has her first catwalk experience. The camera stays centered at the end of the catwalk as Jesse emerges from a beam of pure color, cobalt and fuchsia, and she floats across the beam; she reaches the end of the catwalk in a kind of aesthetic ecstasy, confronted with a triangle of mirrors. As she meets her image, she does the only thing that seems natural: she kisses it, and kisses it again. It is a fantasy of having lived up to her wildest hopes: yes, you are beautiful; purely, platonically beautiful.
And of course, this is the very purity that beauties less pure must drag back down into hell. The other gaze the film manages to capture is a toxic version of the female on female gaze: a mixture of desire, envy, and predatory comparison. There is a breathlessly effective scene where models are auditioning for a designer, each sitting in flesh-colored underwear under bright white lights, waiting for her turn to walk. And by walk, of course, we mean display the body; modeling is rife with metaphors about image and mortality and worth, by its very nature. Refn again opts for centered framing as we follow the models down the walk, and this draws the eye to the body— in the case of Abbey Lee, a body unimpeachable and yet imperfect, a body thin and lovely but nonetheless made of flesh and covered in skin. Jesse’s body is so young and bright and new as to appear hardly lived in at all, hardly real— and that’s exactly the appeal.
After this audition, there comes a shot of Jesse hovering outside the entrance to a bathroom, the back of her head framed against the pink "woman" symbol on the door. When she goes in to talk to Abbey Lee’s character, Lee asks, "What’s it like? To walk into a room, and it’s like in the middle winter, you’re the sun?" Jesse has the simple audacity to reply, "It’s everything." And Lee loses her mind.
The Neon Demon taps into the most twisted, extreme, neurotic parts of the brain socialized as female and femme. The film isn’t logical and it doesn’t follow rules, moral or narrative. It’s a Lynch-style lurid fever dream. It’s not meant to be about the female experience in any kind of total way, but it does get at something that, somehow, exists, at least in my brain. As David Foster Wallace said of watching David Lynch films, "nothing sickens me like seeing on-screen some of the very parts of myself I’ve gone to the movies to try to forget about."
I think that feminist film criticism becomes reductive when it concerns itself primarily with finding idealized female behavior and values at the movies. I want female action heroes and passed Bechdel tests as much as the next woman, but I think that feminist film criticism should be open to films that depict the whole panoply of female experiences— including experiences from the world of anxiety and dreams and nightmares and the subconscious. I know that many critics feel that The Neon Demon’s vision of the female experience is harmful and disingenuous. But I believe if you meet the film on its own terms, there is a profound aesthetic and psychological experience to be had.
I don’t mean to say there’s no room to watch The Neon Demon and feel offended. This falls under the umbrella of exploitation cinema, after all, and when you list the bare facts of the plot on the page, they’re going to look flimsy and clichéd and then obscene. This is absolutely not a film for everyone. But if your film canon has room for Persona and 3 Women, for Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, for Lady Snowblood and Suspiria, for Black Swan, Spring Breakers, Under the Skin, and It Follows, then there’s room for The Neon Demon. We have categories for this kind of work— surrealism, expressionism, sci-fi, horror, camp. And any of the films I’ve mentioned are going to suffer from this kind of story-based, identity-politics-oriented analysis, because they’re not meant primarily as "message" films. They’re meant as experiences. We’re not meant to talk about what happened, we’re meant to talk about what it was like to be there while it happened.
We’re not meant to talk about what happened, we’re meant to talk about what it was like to be there while it happened.
Nicolas Winding Refn has said that, with The Neon Demon, he intended to make a "horror film about beauty," and that’s the kind of film I saw. I think that Refn is not the kind of person we think ought to be allowed to make a feminist film, and so we don’t allow it. We’ve let our perception of the artist cloud our ability to see the work itself. That is, again, to fully be there while it happened to us.
There’s obviously no way to prove this, but I have a theory that critics would love The Neon Demon if they saw a woman’s name attached to that director credit.