Neon Demon (2016) is a film which pretty much divides viewership with few have middling feelings about it. This isn’t just a general audience vs critics split, both seem to passionate hate or like this film. I’m confused why it elicits such a response for several reasons. First, the film is shot beautifully. Second, the acting although mostly wordless is solid. Third, the soundtrack is both entertaining and augmenting to the visual imagery. Fourth, the film is actually horrific in its story when it could have been bland and empty.
I think it’s this last bit, bland and empty, prompting the most disgust. Audiences are rarely pleased with a film requiring attentive watching, allowing the void in speech and image to be filled with the viewer’s preoccupations. What writer/directer Nicolas Winding Refn succeeds in pulling from the actors (Elle Fanning is stunning and Jena Malone is as usual superb) is provocation. There is the story and then there is the psychodrama being orchestrated in the minds’ of viewers prompted, provoked by the images and performances. The manipulation of this film is wonderful, only augmenting its power.
The story is simple: a too young girl arrives in Hollywood to make it big as a model. She had a tragic backstory. She’s fawned over but also gleefully mocked by realities of the industry. Oh, and then a coven witches descends to consume her flesh and youth so they may continue.
A witch film, in whatever form you like, will always be meet with repulsion no matter its genuine quality. The sexuality of this film is aggressively non-hetero giving us scenes of pristine, stylized onanism as well as tender necrophilia.
The terror of Neon Demon is the coaxing of Fanning’s Jesse into a creature just on the brink of losing her perceived purity only to be devoured, literally and figuratively, by the people around her who made her such. One of the great strengths and draws of witch stories is how, when they are done well, we are confronted with a tale implicating us in the horror of the story. What I mean by this is that the witch reveals guilt and pins shame down on people who suppose they have none or are immune. The witch reveals your hypocrisy, your own evil, and your failure to overcome your basest desires.
A delightfully wicked coven story revealing us all as grotesquely culpable.