Puzzle of a Downfall Demon

In terms of its structure, tone, and imagery, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a daring, singular creation. Inspired by real-life interviews with a mentally fraught fashion model and filtered through her distorted recollection of real-life events, the film conjures a dissociative space between reality & fiction. Faye Dunaway is, on a practical level, the most unreliable narrator imaginable as a fashion model who can’t even trust her own recollection of past events, since her mind often defensively softens or alters the truth to protect itself. Her narration doesn’t sync up with the logic of the imagery it accompanies, and the exact nature of the Patriarchal trauma that snapped her mind is only vaguely hinted at as the film expresses her mental anguish through giallo-flavored sensory experimentations. For all that dissociative play in form & tone, however, the basic premise of the story it tells is an echo of a fairly ubiquitous trope in Hollywood narratives. This story of a beautiful, naïve young woman being chewed up & spit out by the entertainment industry is a classic template in mainstream filmmaking. From the sappy melodrama of The Valley of the Dolls to the twisted, excessive camp of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the story of Fame destroying a young starlet’s mind & body has seen an expansive range of cinematic interpretations. As formally daring as Puzzle of a Downfall Child can be, the macro view of its basic plot is yet another entry in that expansive canon.

Curiously, the best example I can think of where a film actively subverted the power dynamics of this trope is also specifically set in the fashion industry. My favorite film of 2016, The Neon Demon, was yet another entry into the woman-destroyed-by-fame canon, but it actively disrupts the usual power imbalances of the “genre.” Much like Faye Dunaway’s troubled protagonist in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (and hundreds of other fictional starlets besides), Elle Fanning stars in The Neon Demon as a young fashion model with big dreams and empty pockets. The wolves of the fashion industry – photographers, designers, agents, makeup artists, other models, etc. – surround her with ravenous intent in all the traditional ways, but what The Neon Demon engages with that most other adoptions of this genre template don’t is that there is a power inherent to that attraction. Elle Fanning plays the typical corrupted fashion model archetype in the film, right down to a violently tragic end, except that she acknowledges and shamelessly revels in the power her youth & beauty afford her in the industry. She warns, “I’m not as helpless as I look,” and often gains confidence & power in her lengthy stares into the mirror. When a fellow model asks, “What does it feel like to walk into the room and it’s the middle of winter and you’re the Sun,” she responds, “It’s everything.” Other characters around her pontificate “True beauty is the highest commodity we have,” and “Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” even going as far as to single her out among other models as “a diamond in a sea of glass.” While most destroyed-by-fame narratives portray their gorgeous damsel protagonists as naïve & innocent, The Neon Demon mischievously plays around with the idea that there’s a power inherent to their alluring beauty, even if the result is ultimately the same.

As perversely fascinating as it is to see the young-starlet-in-peril enjoy the power her own beauty affords her in one of these pictures, it’s important to keep in mind that The Neon Demon is still honest about how outweighed & outnumbered its protagonist is in her industry. Just like in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, she’s immediately negged for her body (this time for a lack of plastic surgery) and her perceived naïvete. Her agent says, “I think you’re perfect. I would never say you’re fat,” in their very first meeting. She’s alone with no money and no social safety net in a motel run by a pedophilic rapist (Keanu Reeves playing drastically against type). There’s no explanation of her backstory and how she arrived in Hollywood with no family to speak of, but it’s not too difficult to her imagine her homelife was just as abusive as the one hinted at in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. As it also plays out in that film, the one acquaintance she considers to be a friend (a lesbian make-up artist played by Jena Malone) pressures her for selfish sexual gratification instead of getting her the help she needs. She’s hounded from all directions, to the point where a literal, honest-to-God mountain lion appears in her bed, read to devour her. The difference between that hounded-from-all-sides pressure in this fashion model tragedy vs. how it’s handled in Puzzle of a Downfall Child is that Elle Fanning’s character isn’t afforded enough time to have a psychological break. Instead, she’s devoured alive by a supernatural world of vampires, cannibals, witchcraft, and necrophilia. That sounds like a pretty major difference on paper, but the overall effect of her arc is largely the same: a young, damaged woman tries to make a life for herself as an artist in the fashion industry and is unfairly destroyed for that ambition. Her resulting destruction just fluctuates between the mental and the physical, depending on the example.

In our original conversation about Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that “Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” Perhaps Blood and Black Lace would be the best place to look for a pure-giallo take on the fashion industry, but The Neon Demon follows Puzzle of a Downfall Child’s exact narrative template while fully indulging in the excesses of horror cinema: supernatural occultist threats, intense neon crosslighting, bathtubs brimming with blood & gore, etc. While pushing the narrative of Puzzle of a Downfall Child into a full-blown horror aesthetic, it also plays around with the traditional power dynamics of that story template in perversely exciting ways. They make for deeply fucked up, disturbing sister films in that way – high fashion descents into madness & bloodshed.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

If asked in 2001 to envision what John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to his break-out debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch might look like, it’s doubtful anyone would have conjured the tender orgy of 2006’s Shortbus or the morbid melodrama of 2010’s Rabbit Hole. Most predictions of a John Cameron Mitchell career trajectory would likely have been closer to his fourth & most recent feature How to Talk to Girls at Parties: a jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. Like with Velvet Goldmine, it’s proven critically divisive for its efforts, particularly in its wild tonal swings & willingness to indulge itself in the novelty joys of its setting as its whims dictate. That may not be an approach that earns unanimous praise form professional critics, who tend to overvalue logical storytelling & tonal control in assessments of films’ supposedly objective value & success. It is an approach that’s much more in line with Hedwig than any of Mitchell’s other subsequent works, however, and it feels great to have him back in his original role as a raucous, unapologetically queer prankster, a musical theatre provocateur.

Three idiotic teenage boys on the early British punk scene fail to balance their political ideals with their raging libidos. They preach anarcho, egalitarian sensibilities in their notebook doodles & fanzines, but also overcompensate for the embarrassment of their virginity by openly leering at their female comrades & grotesquely referring to them as “proper gash.” These juvenile punk scene fuckboys are shaken out of their sexual & ideological comfort zones by the arrival of body-snatching space aliens, who conveniently blend right in with the out-there weirdos who already populate their social circle. From there, the film evolves into a double-edged fish-out-of-water comedy. The boys learn sexual empathy & autonomy in their first meaningful interactions with the opposite end of the gender spectrum, not realizing that they’re fraternizing with beings from another planet. For their part, the aliens challenge their own sexual & autonomous norms by living like humans for a weekend, not realizing that the punk rock sample population they’ve chosen to emulate are far from the norm. This sci-fi culture clash can manifest in exchanges as profound as intergalactic fertilization & internal revelations of evolving sexual identity or in humor as minor as awkward phrases like “Do more punk to me,” & “How do I further access the punk?” The tone can alternate from absurdist comedy to sci-fi & sexual body horror and back again multiple times within a scene, even occasionally venturing off for a musical theatre emotional burst to break up its typical punk scene soundscapes. It’s a total mess but also a consistent, highly specific joy that’s even inaccurately conveyed by its inevitable 1:1 comparison with Velvet Goldmine. It’s a singular novelty worth cherishing both for and despite its faults.

As soon as the horned-up teen-virgin punks unwittingly invade the brightly-colored lair of the visiting alien colonies, it’s obvious they’re in way over their heads. Even if they find the sex they’re looking for, the aliens’ butt-plug high heels, glowing sphincter lights, sack-shaped hammocks, and high-tech sex swings suggest a dayglo S&M universe far beyond the naïve punks’ comprehension. How to Talk to Girls at Parties’s best quality is how well it replicates that same in-over-your-head pleasure in its audience. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance to tastefulness. The miracle is that the spell is only occasionally broken by a stray clunky punchline or choice in choppy music video frame-rate before you’re made to feel drunk by delirium-inducing indulgences all over again. All of John Cameron Mitchell’s films have merit, but they’re only ever this enjoyable when they’re clearly having fun. This is the filmmaking equivalent of bedroom-dancing; Mitchell’s best asset is his ability to amuse himself as if no one else is watching. I imagine this film will find the right 2010s teens and steal their hearts the way Hedwig stole minded in early aughts, critical consensus be damned. The earnestness, unashamed silliness, performative rebellion, and sexual id are all too potent for the film to not break through to someone. I’m jealous of whoever gets that experience with this film, as seeing it made me nostalgic for when I did the same back in ’01.

-Brandon Ledet

Somewhere (2010)

It took watching Sofia Coppola’s worst movie to help me recognize that she’s one of my favorite working directors. Somewhere is a lot like Lost in Translation in the way it allows Coppola to indulge at length in her worst narrative tendencies, mainly her obsession with the ennui of the have-it-all elite. Also like Lost in Translation, Somewhere often overcomes that narrative hurdle in the pure pleasure of its value as a sensory experience, demonstrating the same intoxicating visual & tonal meticulousness that helps distinguish her more thematically rich works (Marie Antoinette, The Virgin Suicides, and The Beguiled are my holy trinity). This is a deliberately simple, quiet work that scales back Coppola’s ambitions after the go-for-broke excess of Marie Antoinette, one that mirrors the listless emptiness of its the-price-of-fame protagonist. As a result, it would be easy to dismiss the film as a lazy act of pretension, but Coppola’s too tonally & visually skilled as an artist to let it sit that way. This may be the most underwhelming film in her catalog to date, but it’s also quietly sweet & charming in a way too few movies are, which is why she’s one of the best.

Stephen Dorff stars as a movie star far above Stephen Dorff’s pay grade. His Tom Cruise-level fame as an action star isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though, as he finds his life spent lazing about L.A.’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel to be an unfulfilling drag. Pushing the disheveled t-shirt & jeans look of a nothing-to-lose movie star to the point of appearing homeless, he still finds beautiful women throwing themselves at his feet while performing simple tasks like picking up the morning paper or taking a phone call on the balcony. The already blatant emptiness of his lazy, hotel room party lifestyle is further put into perspective by the unexpected arrival for his young daughter, played by Elle Fanning. The simple act of sharing time with her (even time wasted playing Guitar Hero or watching her figure skating lessons) changes him for the better, recontextualizing his lazing-about hedonism. Sofia Coppola is no stranger to depicting boredom & ennui; they’re among her favorite pet subjects. Somewhere (again, not unlike Lost in Translation) offers a glimpse at how these emotional experiences (or lack thereof) can mean more and transform into something sweetly beautiful when you share them with someone you care about. It’s not a grand, paradigm-shifting statement, but it is a rewarding, intimate one.

Since boredom & ennui aren’t exactly the most kinetic of cinematic topics, most of Somewhere’s strengths are in the power of individual moments & images. Coppola reportedly strung together the film’s narrative based on her own childhood spent exploring fringe, transient Hollywood spaces like Chateau Marmont (along with the real-life experiences of young Hollywood children she knows in the 2010s) and you can feel that authenticity in the specificity of her imagery & the film’s many intimate exchanges, often between strangers. Mimed underwater tea parties, Foo Fighters-scored strip teases, ungodly piles of gelato, the world’s laziest gesture of unenthused cunnilingus: many might argue that Somewhere doesn’t amount to much, but there’s no denying that meticulous care went into its visual craft & small moments of human interaction. Coppola posits the Marmont as a realm outside of space & time, one only made more bizarre by the mix of celebrities, fashion models, and sex works that drift through its halls. And since the film is very light on dialogue for long, quiet stretches, the way those images shape the story being told can be surprisingly, delicately deft. For instance, the way a slow zoom-in on a claustrophobic plaster cast session matches Dorff’s suffocating loneliness early in the film contrasts wonderfully with the long, revitalizing inhale of a slow zoom-out of him sunbathing poolside with his daughter late in the runtime. Whether that exact contrast was Coppola’s intent or not, she is at least smart enough to allow enough distance for her audience to be able to draw those kinds of connections among her potent, intimate images.

Somewhere might only rank among my least favorite Coppola’s because it’s light on the aspects of her work I personally adore the most. I find her quiet fixation on the emptiness of wealth & excess works best in harsh contrast with an eccentrically loud backdrop, which draws me more to works like Marie Antoinette & The Bling Ring. I also highly value her power as a voice with mainstream notoriety & wide distribution who makes immersively feminine works the likes of which we usually only see in no budget festival releases. As Stephen Dorff’s existential crisis commands most of the runtime (as Bill Murray does in Lost in Translation), I’m not able to see as much of that distinctive voice here as I am in works like The Beguiled & The Virgin Suicides. Still, there’s enough sweetness in the onscreen relationship between Dorff & Fanning (who has become one of my favorite young actors thanks to her turns in The Neon Demon & 20th Century Women) and enough contemplative beauty in the film’s vestiges of excess imagery that I find the experience worthwhile when considered as a whole. Sofia Coppola at her worst is still better than most slow-drift ennui directors at their best. If Somewhere is a low point in her catalog, she deserves credit for having one of the best active resumes around.

-Brandon Ledet

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood-starring thriller The Beguiled rings oddly like a synthesis of the defining aspects of my two favorite films from the director: the dangerously gloomy boredom of The Virgin Suicides & the playfully modernized costume drama of Marie Antoinette. The delicate visual beauty & intensely feminine modes of violence in Coppola’s The Beguiled plays directly into her most readily apparent strengths as a filmmaker. Even though she could have assembled this picture in her sleep, however, there’s a potency to its in-the-moment effect that makes it feel like a personal obsession instead of a more-of-the-same exercise. The question of the film’s overall effect isn’t whether it’s a great work or if it’s an indulgence in craft, but rather how it never existed before this year, why it’s arriving now. The Beguiled feels as if it’s already lingered in the ether forever, or at least as long as Coppola’s been making movies.

A Virginian school for girls struggles with the vulnerability & boredom of isolation during the American Civil War. Distant drums & cannons build tension in an otherwise serene soundscape of bugs, birds, and branches swaying in the wind. In this secluded pocket of peace, one of the younger girls discovers a wounded Union soldier in the woods. Despite being a firmly Southern, Confederate household, the women of the school take the soldier in and allow him to heal in their care. They purport this kindness to be an extension of their Christian charity, but their motivations are clearly more purient than that claim. As the women openly lust for the new, exciting, masculine sore thumb that invades their once quiet home, unspoken rivalries form and the atmosphere turns palpably violent. Suddenly, the distant sounds of war are dwarfed by the violent outbursts within their home, as the intimate presence of the enemy distorts their Southern belle reverie, giving rise to something much more menacing.

Before its violence becomes openly visible, the devilish fun at the core of The Beguiled is its barely-contained displays of lust. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning (a staggeringly powerful trio of talents) stare down the soldier’s gradually healing body with held breath & blatant thirst. Colin Farrell is objectified without apology under this scrutiny. An unconscious sponge bath scene in particular is gleefully overwhelmed with close-ups of the actor’s hips, thighs, and chest hairs. Farrell also holds his own as the de facto prisoner of his seven female wardens, manipulating rivalries among them as a cowardly power play to establish a permanent place at the school instead of returning to the war. He’s the sole male presence in the house, though, a soldier deep in enemy territory. Any brief battles for power he can manage to stage only lead to temporary gains, sparks immediately snuffed by overtly feminine means. After a while, those lustful stares look a lot less like an opportunity and a lot more like a threat.

There honestly isn’t much to The Beguiled in terms of narrative complexity or immediate cultural significance, so Coppola must carry its weight on the back of her visual craft. The film’s natural lighting & period setting fall somewhere between The Witch & Daughters of the Dust in terms of both costuming & cinematographic tone. The sights & sounds of Nature permeate every moment, so that when they’re disrupted by the echoes of war (whether inside or out of the house) the effect is consistently jarring. The fog rising from the forest floor mirrors the steamy tension between Farrell’s soldier & his wanting captors. The heat of them being trapped in an old Southern home together is apparent long before the tension explodes. I can’t pinpoint any qualities of Coppola’s The Beguiled that suggest an immediacy or a necessity for its modern presence, but Coppola’s sense of visual craft & the tension she stirs between her actors make it feel at least somewhat timeless. It’s not one of Coppola’s very best works as a filmmaker, but it does share enough of those films’ DNA to re-conjure their potency & solidify what makes her one of the most consistently rewarding directors around.
-Brandon Ledet

20th Century Women (2016)

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“How do you be a good man? What does that even mean nowadays?”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a finer example of why critical Best of the Year lists are absolute bullshit (due to the arbitrary wackiness of release dates) than 20th Century Women. From an official standpoint, Mike Mills’s latest (and greatest) has a December 28, 2016 release date thanks to its limited release screenings in major cities like New York & Los Angeles. It took nearly a month for the film to expand its distribution wide enough to reach cities like New Orleans, though. These Oscar-minded, slow trickle releases usually mean that modest little pleb film bloggers like myself, who don’t have the luxury of festival circuit browsing & For Your Consideration advance screeners, miss a lot of major Best of the Year contenders until weeks after their year-end roundups are published & etched into digital stone. So let me announce right here & now that my personal Top Films of 2016 list is a total sham, a shameful fraud. No disrespect meant to my beloved The Neon Demon, but its crown is made of the flimsiest fool’s gold. The best film of 2016 is, in fact, 20th Century Women.

Just about the last thing I expected when I bought a ticket to this immaculate, miraculous picture was a reach-for-the-fences ambition in narrative structure & visual craft. The advertising leading up to its release did an exceptional job of highlighting its function as an actors’ showcase for its holy trio of talented women: Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning. The movie certainly does not disappoint there and I guess on some level it does function as the kind of insular Awards Season drama about alternative family structures & eternally hurt feelings you might expect based on the trailers. That’s only a fraction of the territory writer-director Mike Mills covers here, though. Although 20th Century Women is constructed on the foundation of small, intimate performances, it commands an all-encompassing scope that pulls back to cover topics as wide as punk culture solidarity, what it means to be a “good” man in modern times, the shifts in status of the American woman in the decades since the Great Depression, the 1980s as a tipping point for consumer culture, the history of life on the planet Earth, and our insignificance as a species in the face of the immensity of the Universe. For me, this film was the transcendent, transformative cinematic experience people found in titles like Tree of Life & Boyhood that I never “got.” Although it does succeed as an intimate, character-driven drama & an actors’ showcase, it means so much more than that to me on a downright spiritual level.

It would be incredibly easy to reduce the plot of this semi-autobiographical work down to a sentence or two. Annette Bening stars as a dream mom, an incredibly intelligent & self-confident woman who had her only child at the age of 40. Concerned that she’s not fully equipped to alone raise her son to be a “good” man, she enlists the tenants of her home (played by Billy Crudup & Greta Gerwig) and the boy’s best friend/biggest crush (Elle Fanning) to raise him as a village, the way a commune would, a plan cited to be inspired by her own communal upbringing during the Great Depression. This coming of age narrative could feel painfully over-familiar, even within the hyper-specific context of its late 70s West Coast punk scene setting, especially since the assumed POV of the narrative would center on the 15 year old boy everyone’s helping “raise.” Mills’s narrative structure is far too non-linear for the story to play as Oscar season convention, though (a fact backed up by the film only earning a single nomination, one for Best Original Screenplay). 20th Century Women engages in an internal tug of war between over-explaining & withholding information. It will introduce a character’s persona by telling their entire life’s story from birth to death in the length of a paragraph, only to double back to fill in the details & color between those lines. It will continually threaten to slip into time-spanning montage, only for the in-the-moment immediacy of a specific image to crash to the surface. It will threaten heartbreaking moments of devastating melodrama only to reveal that life is more often defined by smaller, less obviously significant events & conversations. The film almost plays like a feature-length trailer, but without the lack of depth that descriptor implies. It’s cliché to say so, but 20th Century Women is pure cinema, the art of the moving image; and it confidently, abstractly allows its medium to dictate its narrative in a way that a simple, reductive plot synopsis cannot convey. It’s in so many ways more than a sum of its parts.

A large portion of my rapturous appreciation of this film is undeniably hinged on the way it plays directly into my personal pop culture obsessions. The very first needle drop sound cue (a literal needle drop thanks to Greta Gerwig’s young punk tenant character) is my favorite early-career Talking Heads song, “Don’t Worry About the Government.” From there it takes the time to explore punk culture as a philosophy and an ethos, not just name-dropping niche artists like The Raincoats for cool points, but verbalizing what makes their DIY aesthetic life-affirming & interesting to the ear. It explains how the scene can be paradoxically empowering through a sense of community among outsiders and alienating in its bitter, insular rivalries that arise from things as petty as who’s slept with whom and what bands people associate with as a personal philosophy. The movie also indulges in the beauty of its own imagery the way only cinema can, often functioning as an Instagram or Tumblr account in motion. From its opening shots of calm ocean waves & symmetrically framed car fires to its slideshow photographs of punk scene portraits, outer space imagery, and common objects like cigarette packs & birth control pills isolated in an art studio void, 20th Century Women never shies away from the simple pleasure of a well-constructed image, but always finds a way to make each indulgence thematically significant. Its structure is explained in-film through easy metaphors like a mixtape or a self-portrait series made through photographs of possessions (which is described as “beautiful, but a little sad”), but I think those reference points sell short its command of “movie magic.” Each stylistic choice is a natural extension of its 1979 setting, but feels as if it were speaking to me directly on a much deeper level than pure aesthetic.

It’s a shame I didn’t see 20th Century Women in time to properly cite it as my favorite 2016 release. It’s also a shame that Annette Bening didn’t earn any Academy Awards attention for her deeply endearing role as the film’s matriarch. At the very least, her lines like, “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to bring depressed,” and “Don’t kiss a woman unless you know what you mean by it,” would’ve made great fodder for an awards show highlight reel. No matter. Long after these end of the year roundups are long forgotten, this film will still be its wonderful, perfect self. Mike Mills has delivered a timeless, masterfully beautiful triumph of humanist filmmaking and no arbitrary release dates or Oscars snubs can delegitimize that accomplishment.

-Brandon Ledet

The Neon Demon (2016)

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The drastic reds, blues, and purples of The Neon Demon‘s opening title card scream “Suspiria!” before the film’s lush synth score & vague witchcraft horrors can even beat you over the head with that influence. The film’s colorless voids & glacial pace whisper “Under the Skin” just faintly enough to give you goosebumps. You can feel Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion lurking in the film’s gleefully predatory sex & violence, as well as its deliberate moral provocations (and, oddly enough, its wallpaper patterns). There’s a touch of Black Swan lurking in its abstraction of female competition & psychological break. There’s more than a hint of Mulholland Drive in its stubbornly auteurist nightmare logic. Blood & Black Lace is woven into the fabric of its fashion world style-over-substance aesthetic. Lesser, trashier works also lodge themselves in the film’s DNA, as cherry-picked elements of It Follows, Lost River, Maps to the Stars, #horror, and, you guessed it (no you didn’t) Tron: Legacy are strategically repurposed for entirely new, entirely terrifying effect. The Neon Demon is unlike anything I’ve seen before in that it’s the best of everything I’ve seen before, just masterfully reshaped & distorted into an exquisitely beautiful work of art with a deeply ugly, predatory soul. I’m at once disgusted by and in total awe of what Nicolas Winding Refn has accomplished here and I revel in the unease of that conflict.

The closest Refn will likely ever come to directing a crowdpleaser was 2011’s Drive, a sleek Ryan Gosling vehicle that explored the seedy world of Los Angeles stunt men & mafia types (as well as the hypnotic spell of body language flirtation). His followup, Only God Forgives, seemed to intentionally push his newfound audience away, presenting an all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go art house take on the revenge thriller by surgically removing all the genre thrills that exploitation formula promises in favor of well-crafted emptiness. The Neon Demon seems intent to split the difference between those two extremes. It is at once Refn’s most beautiful work to date and his most deliberately off-putting (though the silent masculinity of Valhalla Rising makes it a close call on that latter point). His eye returns to the neon-lit, synth-soaked Los Angeles of Drive, but brings the violently ugly, corrupted soul of Only God Forgives along for the ride. It’s tempting to reduce The Neon Demon to descriptions like “the fashion world Suspiria” or “the day-glo Black Swan,” but the truth is that the work is 100% pure, uncut Refn. For better or for worse, this will be the title that solidifies him as an auteur provocateur, likening him to other technically-skilled button pushers like De Palma, Friedkin, Verhoeven, Von Trier, Ken Russell, and, why not, Russ Meyer. Like all the madmen provocation artists that have come before him, Refn stumbles while handling any semblance of nuance in the proudly taboo subjects he gleefully rattles like a curious toddler, but he makes the exercise so beautiful & so callously funny that it’s difficult to sour on the experience as a whole. Instead, you mull over provocations like The Neon Demon for days, months, years on end, wrestling with your own thoughts on what you’ve seen and how, exactly, you’re supposed to feel.

In this particular provocation Elle Fanning plays a sixteen year old model cashing in on her natural beauty in the repugnant, predatory L.A. fashion scene. As soon as she arrives, the sharks start circling the chum in the water, the pythons start sizing up their next meal, the L.A. vampires (both literal & figurative) start sharpening their fangs. She has the kind of beauty described by one character as “a diamond in a sea of glass,” making her stand out both as an opportunity for profit & as a target for violence. Sleazebag photographers & fashion designers turn their heads with unmistakable hunger in their eyes the second she enters a room. Other models shoot daggers as she gleefully eats up the attention. Dastardly villainous make-up artists (Jena Malone) & motel slumlords (Keanu Reeves) jockey to be the first wolf to devour the lamb, drooling to indulge in her inevitable demise. There is a constant, oppressive threat of sexual violence that permeates every scene of The Neon Demon, but Refn thankfully never indulges in its depiction the same way you’d see in old exploitation pics like The Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave. Instead, the threat of rape is abstracted into the shape of a vibe, a glance, an isolated image of violence in a dream, and at one particularly brutal moment, a sound. It’s up to the audience to decipher the balance between representation & complicity here. While it’s true that Refn is consciously condemning the pervasive rape culture aspect of fashion modeling at every turn, it’ also true that he’s indulging in the very same ogling-at-young-beauty impulses that allow that culture to thrive in the first place. Any pointed satire he presents on the matter is also severely undercut by the idea that female-on-female competition is just as much of an ugly threat, especially once the film makes a turn towards a more conventional witchcraft horror pic in the final act. Again, I don’t think Refn handles the hot button topics he’s interested in with any nuanced delicacy, but he does find a way to soften their blow through art house abstraction & you’re not likely to see a more gorgeous work on the big screen all year, morally muddled or not. The result is admittedly uncomfortable, but also deeply fascinating.

The smartest thing Refn does to maintain this high wire balancing act is surround himself with female collaborators. There’s only a small handful of male characters of any consequence in the film and their threat is far outshined by the downright supernatural (and shockingly vicious) power exuded by the women that envelop them, a likely influence of Refn’s two credited female co-writers, Polly Stenham & Mary Laws. He also abstracts the impact of the male gaze by employing a female cinematographer, Natasha Braier, who deserves every accolade you could possibly throw at her for her work here. As the movie puts it, “Beauty is the highest form of currency we have […] Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Although that line is meant to jab at the superficiality of a particularly chauvinistic prick within the fashion world, it also stands a sort of an ethos for what Braier brings to the screen. Every ugly, nightmarish scene in The Neon Demon is made to be strikingly beautiful by the otherworldly wizardry of her lens. Her literal smoke & mirrors dreamscape makes every moment disorienting in a Kubrickian sort of way, a comparison I wouldn’t use lightly. Braier’s work combines with the masterful score by Cliff Martinez and the surreal inclusion of unexpected visual prompts like mountain lions, eyeballs, diving boards, and a triforce to set an aggressively artificial stage for the screenplay’s warped fashion world satire. I don’t know if a team of female collaborators has assembled to construct such a confusingly caustic take on toxic masculinity since Mary Haron & Guinevere Turner adapted American Psycho for the big screen in 2000. By the time Refn dedicates the film to his wife in the end credits the whole movie plays like a terrifying, exquisitely crafted prank.

The Neon Demon is consistently uncomfortable, but also intensely beautiful & surprisingly humorous. Days later my eyeballs are still bleeding from its stark cinematography & my brain is still tearing itself in half trying to find somewhere to land on its thematic minefield of female exploitation, competition, narcissism, and mystic power. This film is going to make a lot of people very angry and I’m certain that’s exactly the reaction Refn is searching for, the cruel bastard. At the same time it’s my favorite thing I’ve seen all year. I’m caught transfixed by its wicked spell & its bottomless wealth of surface pleasures, even as I wrestle with their implications. This is where the stylized form of high art meets the juvenile id of low trash and that exact intersection is why I go to the movies in the first place. The Neon Demon may not be great social commentary, but it’s certainly great cinema.

-Brandon Ledet