Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Scratching the glossy surface of the year's most intriguing film

Elle Fanning enters the devilish world of modelling in The Neon Demon. Photo / Trigger
Elle Fanning enters the devilish world of modelling in The Neon Demon. Photo / Trigger

The Neon Demon is either the best film I've seen this year or the worst film I've seen this year. I can't decide. It might just be both.

Since watching the film last week I've thought about what I think about it a lot. I've discussed it with other people. Hell, I even spoke to writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn about it.

The result of all that conversation and contemplation is that I still can't make up my mind.

In fact, the more I think and talk and ponder and ruminate on the film, the less concrete my position becomes. I've flip-flopped on this damn movie more than a slippery politician during election year.

It's annoying because this sort of stuff is usually black and white. I dig it or I don't. Inappropriately enough, given the movie's dazzlingly bold and stylistically unique use of colour, The Neon Demon has landed firmly in a grey area of indecision.

I love The Neon Demon but I also kind of hate it. It's so brilliant in so many ways but it's also all manner of terrible. It's intelligent while also being obvious and dumb. It's the product of a singular vision, but also shamelessly apes genius.

It clearly prizes style over substance, which would usually be instant grounds for dismissal, only here that's kind of the point of the whole film. Does this make it guilty of the exact thing it's accusing others of, or is this a brilliantly subversive commentary on the very same?

The movie's obviously loaded with visual metaphors and meaning but then again maybe it's not. There's no way to work out what any of it means as these don't appear to follow any internal logic or really make a lick of sense when you try to decode them.

But is this because I'm not smart enough to get it, or have I been reading too much into the movie and there's not actually anything there to get? How deep does its shallowness go?

Where it gets tricky is working out how much of this is intentional, making The Neon Demon genius, and how much of it is not, making it a failure.

So, what's the movie about, then? Modelling. Yep. I know, I know. It's hardly a topic that warrants such thought or examination.

Prepare to groan louder; it's a coming of age story about a teenager trying to make it big in Los Angeles' nasty modelling scene. It is, essentially, America's Next Top Model.

Right up until the moment it's not and it transforms into a sort of glossy horror/thriller type thing.

Still from The Neon Demon, directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. Supplied for TimeOut.
Still from The Neon Demon, directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. Supplied for TimeOut.

That moment, when it comes (heh) in a lonely morgue, is almost calculated to send people out of the cinema. Not because it's grisly or gruesome but more because of the sheer audacity of going there.

The film's horror and bad taste only amplifies, and this is the point when I really started enjoying the film.

Firstly, because Refn drops the thinky, loaded, stuff and just starts running with the shock schlock. And secondly because all its big reveals are confidently dropped in damn near mute silence. The epitome of show don't tell.

Refn is undoubtedly the best sensory director working today. His use of colour and talent in marrying image and music is simply unrivalled.

But he's also burdened with an artist's pretension. He managed to keep a lid on it on his superb breakthrough film, the ultra-stylish crime flick Drive, but succumbed horrifically on his follow-up, the ultra-stylish trainwreck Only God Forgives.

Here, I think he was shooting for a middle ground. Telling an exceedingly simple story, but also filling every shot with metaphor and meaning. But, just like Only God Forgives, they're so veiled and obtuse as to be rendered indecipherable.

Unless, of course, they're not there at all and I've been reading more into this thing than intended, or even possible.

But as the film obviously riffs on the strange surrealism of David Lynch's masterpiece Mulholland Drive and the considered, perfectionist cinematography of Stanley Kubrick, then you have to believe that something like the sudden and random appearance of a mountain lion is a visual metaphor that means something. But what, gawddammit?

I actually asked Refn, just straight out blurted, "what does the mountain lion mean?" because I had to know. Was I failing in understanding the deeper elements of this movie? Or was it as superficial as it appeared?

Yes.

- NZ Herald

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