Last night I got round to watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon. As with all Refn films, the first watch left me in a now familiar and much welcomed state of blended awe, astoundment, revulsion, cognitive exhaustion, and that uniquely Refnesque feeling of post-movie monochromatic overhaul: everything seemingly leeched of colour following a near-two hour visual blitz of neonic, pastelline, candy-pink, ultraviolet, LED-laden lustre. As ever, it is a film which is inundated with symbolism: cinematographic elements which are repeated, charged with meaning, and rely heavily on the watcher’s keen eye for detail, and their ability to wrench meaning from the dream-like repetition of scenes, objects, symbols, lighting, colours, shadows, camera movements. This phantasmagorical manipulation of cinematography becomes a driving force in Refn’s films, a psychologically charged means of propelling the viewer and the underlying narrative. To watch The Neon Demon purely on the surface, merely through the events taking place, ignoring the meta-elements, is to cripple the narrative. You may argue that this is common amongst modern directors, but I’d argue that none come even close to the level which Refn achieves: where an embedded cinematography works specifically to fill in the surface narrative’s gaps. There’s no doubt that Refn’s filmic style is one which echoes the surrealists: one which conflates the symbolic realm of dreams with mundane reality; which exorcises repressed thoughts, drives and emotions through an uninhibited and perverse viscerality.
Starting with the opening scene, immediately Refn gives us this conscious conflictive compilation of frames: the frame of the set in which central character Jesse lies soaked in blood; the frame of the window which overlooks the urban landscape; the frame of the camera through which the love interest looks at Jesse; and, of course, the frame through which we view the scene taking place. Immediately we’re being drawn to this layered sense of falsification, fabrication, which is the dominant theme throughout the film. This is progressively reinforced through the ever-increasing use of mirrors and reflective surfaces as the film progresses: as the central character becomes more successful in her modelling career, the mirrors grow in number, and a prism steadily begins to formulate around her, to entomb her. As the mirrors grow in number, and the prism closes, her true self dwindles, she becomes one of the depthless models which seek to destroy her, and ultimately to consume her (literally and metaphorically). This theme of mirrors accentuates her burgeoning Freudian self obsession, and the final scenes of the film alludes to the Narcissus myth: the empty pool represents epiphany, the point at which her self obsession (her continued gazing into the pool, the mirror) retreats, but she is already by this point contained at the very centre of the prism (this represented by the positioning of her killers, and the stars immediately following her death, which recreate the shape of the prism, which is this emblem for epithetic self obsession, for the meeting point of reflection, and ultimately self-destruction). Following Jesse’s killing, we again see this symbolic image of the swimming pool, however it is now filled, thus representing the resurgence of the vacuous, the depthless self-love. But one of the models catches a glimpse in the pool, a momentary resurgence of morality – ‘I need her out of me’ – she says, cutting herself open in the hope of emptying herself of this haunting self-perception, this searing truth superceding the mask, this finally expressed when she coughs up Jesse’s eye.
The mountain lion scene (in which it invades Jesse’s decrepit flat) is also one which is symbolically pertinent: the lion represents this underlying conflation (and zenith) of danger and beauty. We see this scene reenacted a number of times throughout the film. First, following her big break into modelling, she hears a crash coming from the women’s bathroom (recreating the scene in which she heard a crash from her flat after the mountain lion broke in). In which one of the cannibalistic blonde models has smashed the bathroom mirror out of frustration having lost out on the modelling job to the less experienced Jesse. She lies in wait, like the mountain lion, before attempting to drink Jesse’s blood after she slips on a shard of glass. The scene is echoed again later when Jesse’s red-headed seeming friend (who later is revealed as a serial necrophiliac, and one of Jesse’s three murderesses) reveals her secret love for Jesse and attempts to rape her. Immediately following this scene we see a shot of Jesse’s wounded attacker, her face is shot so as to create an eerie, ghostly, doubling effect, bleached of colour on just one side. Just off to the side of her spectral visage is the form of a snarling stuffed leopard, again mirroring this initial traumatic scene. It is an almost reverberatory cinematography. There are many more examples, and this symbolic aspect permeates the majority of his films, be sure to keep an eye out!
NB: featured image by Boris Pelcer at LittleWhiteLies. Narcissus by Caravaggio (1594-6).