Style over substance – that was a phrase that I kept thinking of as I watched this movie. It’s one of those terms that’s probably just right below the word “pretentious” on the list of things that would irritate “cinephiles” and film critics (well, some of them, anyway). Hell, I’ve had stuff like “but that’s the point!” and “but the style is the substance!” thrown at me in the past whenever I brought up that phrase to describe a movie. However, once this film had ended, I realized – you know what? It wouldn’t actually matter if the movie were style over substance or substance over style or the two elements complemented each other or whatever. It wouldn’t matter because at its core, this is a film where there’s just no scenario in which I can imagine it would actually be successful. That’s because the film’s biggest problem, its biggest hurdle, one that it never overcomes, is that it’s a film by Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn’s presence is consistently felt throughout the film; in fact, he imposes himself onto every frame – and the plumbing, so to speak, is always visible. You can always see exactly what Refn is trying to do (especially since he goes about it all in a heavy-handed manner), you can see exactly the kind of bait that Refn is trying to offer you, and I didn’t take it.
The film is in fact quite heavy-handed: I’m sure Refn had himself a good chuckle when he came up with this idea that the character Ruby, as played by Jena Malone, would be introduced as a makeup artist for supermodels, only for us to find out later on that she also works part-time at a morgue and does “makeup” on cadavers (ha HA!). A lot of the film’s visual symbolism and metaphors are ham-fisted in this way including one sequence where we see the main character, Jesse (Elle Fanning), finally coming into and owning her narcissism by kissing mirror reflections of herself inside a prism. Were it not for the fact that I was only superficially interested in that scene because of the style (it reminded me a bit of Under the Skin) I would have actually laughed at how heavy-handed it was – and in fact Refn’s assault on the senses does actually work in this manner in some scenes. Refn is apparently partially colorblind and can only see reds and blues, so he and his cinematographer and production designer altogether bathe a lot of scenes in deep reds and blues, and sometimes dark blacks and off whites, and the modern/techno/club type score by Cliff Martinez does its job in making everything seem “pop” and even adds tension to some scenes (that once again it’s so clear what Refn wants them to be that I wondered if he didn’t actually have the word “suspense” written in upper case letters on his script), but this superficial engagement is fleeting.
Eventually, this surface-level enjoyment fades away as the film descends into absolute schlock in its third act, utilizing lots of really bad horror movie tropes that undermine whatever little good it did early on. Not only that, it seems as if Refn knows and recognizes these tropes, he knows what he’s putting on screen, but his response isn’t simple self-awareness, but to dial all of these tropes up to 11. A scene of necrophilia is so ridiculous that it’s actually risible – it elicited a laugh from me rather than horror or shock. There are violent deaths, cannibalism, you name it – but in these final sequences Refn reveals his true self: He’s another one of those dime-a-dozen provocateurs of cinema who’s so infatuated with himself that any point he’s trying to make about any kind of theme becomes secondary to himself – the man behind the camera, the orchestrator. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Of course, it doesn’t help that whatever themes there are in this film are in fact completely rote and cliched and there’s absolutely nothing new or insightful that Refn has to offer regarding them. Themes of beauty – and not just beauty, but the standards of beauty, that are imposed upon women by men, by the fashion industry, whatever – all of it is handled first of all in a completely heavy-handed manner (as in some of the examples I’ve give above) and then most, if not all of it, is completely undermined and undone by the last half an hour or so of the movie. Its somewhat oblique ending can’t mask the fact that at the end of the day, this isn’t really a film so much as it is an aesthetics exercise; a demo-reel for its director, and no doubt the people who nowadays seem to confuse/conflate the term “auteur” with “quality” will find much in this film to praise, and I expect lots of “but actually“s to be thrown at me upon reading this review, but actually, you know what? There is a film I was reminded of while watching this film and it’s the film I last reviewed on this blog before this one – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor. I’m sure that’s not a film a lot of people will think of in relation or comparison to this film, but bear with me for a moment. In that review, I mentioned one sequence where Weerasethakul starts playing with the colors of the film and the way it’s so subtly done that you don’t even realize it’s happening at first. It just sneaks up on you and surprises you, but never imposes itself on you. One of the objectives of both of these films is actually the same – they both want to entrance you and engage you in a visceral audiovisual experience – but the different ways in which these two directors go about their objectives is pretty stark – and tells you clearly who is actually a master of their craft and who is merely playing at being one.