Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

06 October 2016

Two in Neon

Neon Bull (Boi Neon) is one of the most unexpected films I've seen this year. The film follows a group of characters who work for a kind of Brazilian rodeo in which the tails of the bulls are grabbed by a kind of vaquero and the bull is flipped by his own energy so that he falls. As the film continues we see this happen several times. Each time it is compelling and unsettling.

Gabriel Mascaro's film follows one of these workers, Iremar, as he works with these animals, and a girl named Cacá whose mother works with the rodeo. Iremar is actually a fashion designer or wants to be, and he designs costumes for Cacá's mother when she dances in a cabaret. Cacá mostly just hangs around. But what she really wants is a horse.

The film unfolds slowly (totally my speed), allowing for our relationships with these characters to settle. We can observe and identify, slowly noticing patterns and studying these characters. The film takes a decidedly odd turn midway through, however, when Iremar and one of his companions attempt to steal some horse semen from an (apparently) valuable animal. I won't say any more than this – do I even need to? – but Mascaro's film kept surprising me from this point on.

Abigail Pereira and Juliano Cazarré
Neon Bull is visually stunning and some of its image are downright jaw-dropping. And as the film continues it meditates on our relationships with animals, on lives lived in relationship with animals, on the ways we make money off of our manipulation of animals. This means, of course, that Neon Bull is fundamentally about the question of the human. In what ways are we different from animals? In what ways are we animals? Mascaro's film thinks through these questions via the topic of sex, and Neon Bull is therefore a very sexy film in addition to being excellent.

This film made me think very deeply, and I don't think I loved it while I was watching. I was more astounded by this movie; my reaction was rather one of simple and consistent surprise. But once Neon Bull was over, I couldn't shake it. In fact, it's been three weeks since I saw this movie and I still keep thinking about it, its images, its ideas, its carefully drawn characters and their fascinating relationships. If I didn't love this movie three weeks ago, I'm positive I do now. It's not going to be for everyone – its explicit sex sequences (one involving an animal) and slow pace will turn off quite a few viewers – but this movie is great.

* * *
And then there's The Neon Demon, the new film by Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed the awesome Drive and then followed that up with the ridiculously boring Only God Forgives.

Neon Demon takes place in an odd, haunted Los Angeles that has almost no correspondence with reality. This is a Lynchian fever-dream of a film and knows that's what it is. In fact, there is literally no way that anyone who doesn't like Lynch will like The Neon Demon. 

What this movie is is actually a campy, surreal, mostly silly horror movie with models for main characters and cannibalism as its subject matter. It even includes that staple of this B-movie genre: lesbian desire and girl-on-girl sex scenes.

Nicolas Winding Refn, however, doesn't seem to think he's directed a gimmicky, B-movie, fantasy flick. He think he's made A Clockwork Orange or Barry Lyndon or Blue Velvet. He most certainly has not. He's hidden his silly-but-possibly-clever little horror film, which should have lasted about 75 minutes, inside a bloated, pretentious, and (worst of all) boring 120-minute film. The Neon Demon is awful. 

The Neon Demon's Opening Shot
And it isn't just the world of the film that seems totally detached from reality. Even the film's central assumption – that Elle Fanning possess an extraordinary (yet completely natural) beauty that none of the other gorgeous models in the film possesses – only makes sense because the film keeps telling us it does. I couldn't tell the difference between one model and the next, and I fail to see how Refn or anyone in his film is supposed to be able to do so. The film's main argument is actually that these models are a fungible quantity, easily replaceable, and yet we are supposed to believe that one of them is not that: that she is special in some kind of magical, clearly noticeable way? And then The Neon Demon itself replaces Fanning! In act three she is no longer the central character of the film. Someone else, in fact, takes the place of this irreplaceable, unique beauty, and we find that, of course, we can do without her quite well.

Oh, Who Cares?
For my part I could have done without this film in its entirety, but it is not completely without redeeming qualities. Karl Glusman is good in a small, thankless part, and Erin Benach's costumes are pretty great. The makeup, too, is really really excellent. Keanu Reeves, it should also be noted, gives a performance that is much better than this film.

There are a few stunning images, too, especially notable is a very brief sequence in which an intruder gets into Elle Fanning's apartment.

If only Refn took himself a little less seriously. I recommend that the director of The Neon Demon and Only God Forgives watch a few John Waters films and admit his silliness to himself. Refn seems to think he's doing Lynch or Kubrick, but what he's doing is what Frank Perry used to do – making very serious films that turn out to be exercises in camp.