Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon: Dystopian Modernism, Part 1

Lately, I have been thinking about various forms of cultural material that may be grouped up under what I like to refer to as dystopian modernism. More specifically, if modernism in its classical form was organized around a fusion between aesthetic formalism and the utopian premise of radical transformations of the world, dystopian modernism then indexes a (mainly) post-war aesthetic strand that retains classical modernism’s formal innovation, but rejects its utopian underpinnings and techno-social optimism. In that regard, the concept refers to an aesthetic increasingly immersed in the flat, hyperreal world of postmodern culture – but I would at the same time not simply group it up under postmodernism insofar as it retains the personal style and critical distance that is completely lacking in postmodern aesthetics proper. Rather, dystopian modernism refers to the work of various highly sophisticated artists who seem to have lost the modernist belief in a better world, and thus utilizes aesthetic formalism not for alluding to such worlds – again, as in classical modernism – but rather for navigating the sociocultural malaise of our shallow postmodern world. In cinema, for instance, Michelangelo Antonioni is a typical dystopian modernist insofar as he was someone who reinvented the language of cinema through a novel kind of formalism (i.e. his alienating cinematography and mise-en-scéne), but whose films nevertheless lack the progressive mind set of classical modernist aesthetics. Instead, they revolve around the alienation of man in the modern world and the dystopian impact of technology. There are obviously plenty of other examples of dystopian modernism – although my aim here is not to offer a full-blown analysis of the concept and its history, but rather to use it as a loose framework for discussing a few recent cultural works that I have enjoyed immensely because of how they utilize various kinds of aesthetic formalism in order to articulate a kind of late capitalist, postmodern alienation.

This first part focuses on Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, which is one of the most audio-visually impressive films that I have seen in a while. Thematically, it indeed positions itself along a by now well-known strand of dystopian films aimed at dramatizing the sociocultural alienation of our late capitalist, postmodern world. That in itself is nothing new, but what I like about the film is how it utilizes a combination of formal aesthetics and horror-elements in order to articulate this critique. And in that regard, I think it could be described in terms of dystopian modernism on the one hand – and in terms of what I like to think of as formal horror, on the other.

Horror is one of the great underestimated film-genres, as I see it, which I think to a large extent is rooted in the common understanding of it as genre-film – a kind of default B-movie type of filmmaking that offers no more than cheap scares and simplistic gore. But there is much more to horror than this, which can be seen in the work of veteran horror-film directors who all have made substantial contributions to the genre – such as Dario Argento, John Carpenter, George A. Romero and the early David Cronenberg, to name some of the more obvious names – as well as in horror-films by great directors who normally do not make such films in particular, such as Stanley Kubrick with The Shining (1980), Ridley Scott with Alien (1979), Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), Ingmar Bergman with Hour of the Wolf (1968), and William Friedkin with The Exorcist (1973). These are all great films that significantly augment the horror-genre to also encompass wider existential, philosophical, and aesthetic dimensions that I would argue sit at its very heart (for is not the essence of great horror the existential questioning of our place in the universe and various confrontations with the indifferent outside?). Yet for the most part, horror-films tend to take the forms of lacklustre gore- or Hollywood-spectacles driven merely by bland sensationalism. Recently, however, a small group of films that have come to be known as ‘arthouse horror’ – perhaps most notably The Babadook and It Follows (both 2014) – have challenged these conventions to a certain extent. But whereas I am fully in favour of the ambition to expand the horror-genre beyond gore-sensationalism and Hollywood-spectacles (which I indeed think is both warranted and necessary), I am so far not entirely convinced by the key films that have been associated with the term.

This is where The Neon Demon emerges as an important film, insofar as it takes the arthouse-ambitions of arthouse horror to a formal level – as opposed to the mostly thematic and narrative levels that the term signifies in The Babadook and It Follows – and thus utilizes a to me more interesting and unique take on the genre in order to move beyond the generic sensationalism of traditional horror. For as much as I love horror, I am not a sensationalist as much as a formalist – which is why I find The Neon Demon’s aesthetic take on horror as a means to articulate late capitalist, postmodern alienation to be highly intriguing insofar as it – aside from being powerfully captivating on an audio-visual level – illustrates how formal horror can be utilized as an instrument for such critical sociocultural observation. Needless to say, one could make the argument that the film is not necessarily a horror-film per se; but the way that it tends to defy easy categorization is only a positive for me, partly since it feeds into my sentiments about the need to expand horror-aesthetics beyond the genre-film.

At the same time, the film is not devoid of thematic registers, as it very appropriately is set in the L.A. modelling-industry and follows 16 year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) as she enters the modelling-scene to much hype by the people in power, and to much jealousy by some of the other models. The choice to situate the film in the beauty-industry is as obvious as it is effective, insofar as the massive amount of scrutiny that the female body has to endure in this industry – and how this operates as an avatar for the prevalent tendency in popular culture to sexualize the female body and reduce women (in particular) to no more than gloss surface – needless to say offers a productive environment for the kind of hyperbolic commentary that Winding Refn wants to make; most notably on our obsession with beauty – the artificiality of postmodern beauty in particular – and the absurd cosmetic consequences that this obsession has led to. As he has put it himself in interviews: the thematic core of the film is the relationship between beauty and death, and how our obsession with artificially enhanced beauty is linked to a kind of inorganic death. And it is precisely how this sentiment to a significant extent is articulated through a combination of horror and aesthetic formalism that to me is most compelling about the film, insofar as it powerfully captures the absurd mixture between the beautiful and the grotesque that fuels this obsession. Indeed, read in this way, Winding Refn’s fusion between horror and formalism is as critically effective as it is aesthetically captivating.

Unsurprisingly, critics of the film have argued that the story is way too thin and that the dialogue is lacking. But to me this kind of criticism fails to appreciate how the film sidesteps the standard focus on narrative and dialogue in favour of audio-visual experimentation – and how crucial this is to its overall critical and aesthetic impact. In that regard, it is somewhat similar to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) – a film that also utilizes horror-elements in conjunction with an investigation into hysterical obsession with the female body (although set in the high-art world of ballet as opposed to the pop-cultural world of modelling), and intentionally downplays narrative and dialogue in favour of a kind of obsessive viscerality (that it also was criticized for). Yet while I certainly do not have issues with that, I have never found Aronofsky’s aesthetic particularly interesting (i.e. going back to his earlier films as well) insofar as his frenetic editing and (honestly) quite bland camerawork tend to get quite tedious once the initial shock has passed. More interesting reference-points to me are horror-films such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral (2012). Suspiria is probably The Neon Demon’s most obvious stylistic predecessor (as Winding Refn has pointed out himself) in that the latter’s set designs, colour schemes, and great electronic soundtrack often are very reminiscent of Argento’s film. And thematically, it does share a lot with Antiviral – which also utilizes horror to make similar commentaries on popular culture’s obsession with beauty and fame (its near-future scenario revolves around a sales-rep. for a company that specializes in injecting viruses collected from celebrities into people who desire a more intimate connection with them – a plot device which obviously is very close to The Neon Demon’s, as those who have seen the film know), and also looks quite stunning in its underground-simplicity.

In other words, the critics are correct in that there is nothing beyond the audio-visual surface of The Neon Demon, but they are wrong in that this is something negative insofar as it is precisely the surface that is the key – and really has a depth and complexity on its own. It may lack the sophisticated dialogue of, say, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (which was adapted to a film by David Cronenberg in 2012, that – along with The Neon Demon – is the best film on the themes of postmodern alienation and artificiality that I have seen over the past few years), but whereas that book and film are centred around DeLillo’s great dialogue (although the cinematography, music, and sound design in the film are just as great), in The Neon Demon the dialogue is just one element among many others – and not the central one either. Rather, it is mostly used as a device to link together what to me are the core elements of the film: set pieces, lightning, colour-schemes, stylized gore, and Cliff Martinez’ haunting electronic score (reminiscent of 70s and 80s electronic music, such as Kraftwerk, Goblin, Tangerine Dream, and Giorgio Moroder) that powerfully matches the chilly artificiality of the film as a whole. It is these latter components that are the film’s real success in my book; for even though we obviously have seen both stylized gore and the same kind of affect-less, artificial landscape on display in the film depicted several times before, it is the combination of the two under the aegis of a dystopian modernist formalism that makes The Neon Demon such a compelling piece. Indeed, the music and set pieces are just stunning: the early club-scene, the scene where Jesse seems to be seducing herself in a dream, and the ending-scene are some of most audio-visually captivating ones that I have seen in a film for quite some time.

There are some weaker aspects to the film, though, such as the quasi-cultist elements that appear in its latter half (through Jena Malone’s character in particular) and feel somewhat superfluous (and also are never really elaborated on). Then there is of course a more lingering general question that one may pose on the back of the film: Could we not think of an alternative, productive way of fusing beauty with artificiality – beyond death and postmodern alienation – in the future (perhaps in terms of the dismantling of, rather than the obsession with, identity)? But that is obviously a question more apt for modernism proper.

Special thanks to Matt Chinn for allowing me to use his artwork for the film.

To access the Neon Demon-playlist in the video archive, click here.

Image Copyright Notice: Matt Chinn