Visual storytelling is far more nuanced than straightforward dialogue-based narrative progression. But using images to convey major ideas within a film is risky for several reasons, as it leaves more to be inferred by the audience. One, the director must have an image on screen; two, the director must have the audience’s focus be on the image for that frame or sequence; and three, the importance of that image must be obvious enough to establish a connection to the rest of the film’s themes. If a director succeeds with this, he is a genius, a master of the mise-en-scene. If he fails, he is a bumbling arthouse wannabe.
Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the best visual filmmakers of the modern age. His ability to show exactly what he wants and convey information in direct and indirect ways makes for films that challenge audience members. Though critically it has brought him mixed success, the images he creates on film have a staying quality. Consistently cinematographically-beautiful films like Drive (2011), Only God Forgives (2013), and even Bronson (2008) exemplify the use of visual language that disturbs, mystifies, and intrigues. Unfortunately for Refn, he is often faulted for his penchant for the visual and, as in his latest film The Neon Demon (2016), his artistic intent is lost on many.
The film follows a young girl (Elle Fanning) as she attempts to make it in the fashion world of Los Angeles is quick to learn that there is an insatiable lust for recognition and power. Moving quickly up in the industry, her natural beauty not only impresses other models, but threatens them to their very core.
The Neon Demon relies heavily on the visual. It arguably possesses the best set and costume design from the past year, which is unsurprising given its setting in the fashion and modeling world. There is a glut of colors, shades, and elegance in every scene. Refn’s cinematographic skills take these elements and present them in a wholly stunning way on camera. Stills from this film could be presented in a gallery. If presented in this way, these images may mean close to nothing, but within the film they mean everything.
Many of its detractors, however, claim that its lack of focus on heavy dialogue deadens any emotional investment that could be made. Its dry, calculating, and sterile characters are pure, hollow entities in the film, floating from scene to scene unaffectaciously. By the naysayers’ account, Refn’s visual language falls flat because it is a stepping stone for the grotesque acts he wanted to document in the latter half of the film. Critiques suggest that the loose connections diminish the already flimsy story. This way of thinking admonishes the lack of a concise ending.
I would contend that The Neon Demon is much like Drive in its presentation. Ryan Gosling’s character was a silent man, but he was able to convey a considerable amount of information about his character. His calculating manner behind the wheel, his yearning for love, and his violence, were all brought to light through small cracks in his visage and in the inimate moments of the film. He clenches a gloved fist as his brow furrows slightly. The symbolism of his golden scorpion jacket changes each time he throws it over his shoulders.
Refn does much the same in The Neon Demon, showing the internalized narcissism of this girl grow in every glance of the mirror. At the end of the second act, she kisses herself in the mirror, which tells us more—in a slightly heavy-handed way—than any piece of dialogue. He represents the animosity between models through make-up resembling a Cheshire smile and shows how this world is made to consume models, both literally and figuratively. None of these elements are explicitly in the film, but they, as well as the overall message I attach them to, were of my own observation. This film does not give answers, only images to piece together.
On the surface, visual storytelling may seem unimaginative and rely too much on the attentiveness of viewers. Critically, it is a sure-fire way to gain some unsavory reviews. But I find that these films are the ones that haunt our dreams as they challenge us to conjure up our own meanings and interpretations of what is happening on screen. It might not be easy, but it might be what we need.
In an interview with Indiewire in 2005, Refn spoke about the industry.
“The problem with cinema nowadays is that it’s a math problem. People can read a film mathematically; they know when this comes or that comes” he said. “So film has become a mathematical solution. And that is boring, because art is not mathematical.”
As viewers we must not expect solutions, but be open to finding them in between the frames.
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