*WARNING – contains spoilers*. Last night I finally got around to watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon. As with most Refn films, I was left in a blended state of awe, revulsion, and that unique feeling of post-movie monochromatic overhaul: everything seems leeched of colour following a near-two hour visual blitz of neonic, candy-pink, ultraviolet, LED-laden lustre. Like many other Refn movies, the Neon Demon is surrealist in tone and ideas, particularly by way of its heavy inclusion of dream symbolism. The cinematography is used metatextually and scenes are charged with hidden meaning, through the dream-like repetition of scenes, objects, lighting, colours, shadows and even camera movements. The manipulation of cinematography is a driving force in Refn’s films, a means of engaging the viewer and propelling narrative. To watch The Neon Demon purely on the surface, merely through the events taking place, ignoring these meta-textual elements, in some ways hinders narrative. in that Refn conflates the symbolic realm of dreams with mundane reality seemingly for the purpose at emphasising certain repressions and unfulfilled desires in his characters.
In the opening scene Refn gives a 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 the viewer watch the scene taking place. Immediately then we’re being drawn to this layered sense of falsification and fabrication, which is very much the dominant theme throughout the entire 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 almost. As the mirrors grow in number, and the prism closes, and her true self dwindles, she becomes one of the depthless models which seek to destroy her, and ultimately to consume her (both 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) ends, but it is perhaps too late – 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, this emblem for self obsession 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.
NB: featured image by Boris Pelcer at LittleWhiteLies. Narcissus by Caravaggio (1594-6).