Image: Max Connelly-Webster

Last Night I Watched: ‘Misbehaviour’ and ‘The Neon Demon’

Last night I went to our Warwick Student Cinema to watch Misbehaviour, a 20th Century Fox film directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Swallows and Amazons).

The film follows the actions of some of the Women’s Liberation Movement’s activists against the patriarchal, racist and objectifying Miss World Competition. The main character, UCL History student Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), bonds with the rebellious Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) and teaches us how civil disobedience can give the power to be heard and to be seen.

However, even though the film encourages us to raise our voices and to protest, it seems as though the protagonists’ actions were in vain, as the 70th edition of Miss World is expected to happen at the end of 2020 – if 2020 ever ends.

I guess that, once we get the point of the film (bringing the Miss World Contest down) and we realise it is still happening this year, the spectator is expected to be infuriated, to want to rise up and fight against this long-lasting injustice. To be honest, I was quite bored.

After two hours of fluttering skirts and dancing high heels (always historically accurate, as the film is set in the 1970s), I realised I was watching a chick-flick movie instead of the uplifting, universal declaration I was expecting.

But you can’t point fingers at an objectifying and hyper sexualising society in a film where everything is shown as glamorous and is covered in glitters

Don’t get me wrong, the subject and the message the film conveys are important. But you can’t point fingers at an objectifying and hyper sexualising society in a film where everything is shown as glamorous and is covered in glitters, including prison and being judged in court. Moreover, if male gaze is a subject in the film, we could talk about white gaze here (are we to understand that black women just want to be pretty they don’t care about being objectified?).

I think the highlight of the film was the unavoidable ‘makeover scene’, which reminded me of The House Bunny (a satirical comedy portraying sorority ‘nerds’ in need of popularity, saved by a Playboy model who is going to teach them how to be friendly and sexy). The comparison might be a bit extreme, but this scene reveals the commercial side of the film. The female audience is still bought over a bit of makeup and some dresses, or that is what the producers seem to think.

Since Misbehaviour had been a bit too ‘easy’ for me, I decided to make a night out of it and to watch another film, The Neon Demon (2016, Nicolas Winding Refn).

Now, at first sight, the two films couldn’t be more different. The Neon Demon depicts the modelling industry as a dehumanising world, where girls compete with each other to a point where they’re closer to animals than to objects of beauty and pleasure (as in Misbehaviour).

On an aesthetic point of view, the film is a wonder, the visuals are breath-taking and create an antithesis with the plot and the characters’ actions which could be compared with the Emmy nominated – and rewarded – HBO TV show Euphoria. This contrast between beauty and horror gives a surreal and nightmarish atmosphere to the film which resulted, for me, in a complete fascination.

Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Pusher) takes us into his disturbing and mesmerising universe, revealing the true nature of our society by literally taking commonly used expressions such as “I would kill to have her waist” or “I could rip her eyes out” and denouncing beauty standards. The film is full of mysteries and is quite enigmatic, but I think there is a key element to our understanding of the film: the title.

The Neon Demon, suggests that what makes these girls act like wild animals are ‘the neon’, the lights of a shooting setting, the flashlight triggered by a photograph. The real demon is indeed the camera, the eye from beyond.

“L’oeil était dans la tombe et regardait Cain” (“The eye was in the tomb and kept looking at Cain”, La Conscience, Victor Hugo).

In his poem, Hugo reminds us of the inevitable consequences to jealousy by referencing a biblical image. Yet, the camera is similar to that divine eye, capturing every moment into its gut and projecting it on a big screen, emphasising our faults and our failures. This projection we perceive as distorted is what makes us sin (to continue with the religious theme). From here come the insecurities, the comparisons, the jealousy, the rivalry… The characters in the film only express our deepest thoughts and our desires – in a very exaggerated way of course.

If, in The Neon Demon, this critical stare results in exacerbated behaviour (only in order to enhance this relation between the camera and the spectator), it is overly diminished in Misbehaviour. But the point is that we aspire to be, to look and to act like who we witness on the screen.

Cinema is the art of moving pictures, but it also moves its audience

The Neon Demon was a slap in the face to me. As an aspiring filmmaker it made me question the way I wanted to show bodies, faces, and characters in the future. Cinema is the art of moving pictures, but it also moves its audience. If a film such as Misbehaviour, which is supposed to defend women’s rights, still shows women as objects of beauty and men as figures of power, the audience won’t change its opinion.

Film is an art, an entertainment, a hobby, a work, a passion… but it is above all a medium. Like all media, the messages it conveys are brought to all kinds of people to be heard and interpreted. I am glad I watched both films in one night, together they create a powerful antithesis that reveals the dangers of images: one film shows how influencing and biased they can be, and the other stages the consequences to these manipulating images.

And that is why I think you should watch both Misbehaviour and The Neon Demon in one night.

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