“Does that look like someone on the verge of a psychotic break?” asks a record label executive in the opening scenes of The Idol, Sky’s glossy new five-part drama from Euphoria creator Sam Levinson. We are looking down on a woman – scarcely more than a girl – wearing a bikini so small it is hardly visible to the naked eye, puffing away on a cigarette while dark sunglasses mask her baggy eyes. She is a corpse, propped up for dance rehearsals, studio sessions and Vanity Fair interviews, but otherwise left with cadaverous inscrutability. Does she look like someone on the verge of a psychotic break? Time will tell.
Lily-Rose Depp is Jocelyn, a pop star recovering from a nervous breakdown and the traumatic loss of her mother. She chain-smokes and stalks around her Hollywood home in skimpy outfits, while a coterie of grown-up executives pressure her into releasing a new single and heading back on tour. It’s no surprise, then, that she takes refuge in the mysterious figure of Tedros (Abel Tesfaye, better known by his own pop-star pseudonym, The Weeknd), a nightclub owner who seems simultaneously overawed by, and immune to, Jocelyn’s charms. “You’ve got the best job in the world,” he tells her. “You should be having way more fun.”
The term “body horror” was coined in the 1980s to label the trend of movies depicting grotesque and disturbing abominations of the human form. Films like The Blob and The Fly, and later The Human Centipede and Hostel (directed by Eli Roth, who appears in The Idol as a concert promoter) embraced the concept. But the pulled fingernails, razored eyeballs and vivisected torsos of those films have gone out of fashion, replaced by a more subtle form of body horror. The Idol is a show about the packaging and exploitation of a body, and the latent violence – from and against – that corporeal form.
The clearest analogue for this is not Levinson’s freshman work on Euphoria (though that too underpins its male gaze with the constant threat of cruelty) but Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, a film about a young model, which progresses from sickly fetishisation to a more literal, and visceral, body horror. Levinson’s work is deeply aesthetic – he is far less interested in, say, dialogue – and foundationally leering. Jocelyn is introduced during a photoshoot in which she moves between the expected roles of the modern pop star (“Give me some innocence,” the photographer orders, “OK, pure sex now”) and rarely wears more than a negligee. She is left, at all times, horribly exposed to the demands of her managers, friends and love interests. The smoky, sultry score follows her around, and Basic Instinct plays in the home cinema, but the dead-eyed starlet appears stripped of erotic agency.
It’s all quite effective, presenting viewers with something lush and problematic. What’s more confusing is Tesfaye’s Tedros. Is he supposed to be quite so chillingly unsexy? He stalks around like a gurning Zorro, his “rattail” hairdo protruding like a dislocated Teletubby aerial. He says embarrassing things like “This is a church for all you sinners!” and scrapes at his million-watt smile with a toothpick. But perhaps this visual repulsiveness is, in fact, the point, and the presupposition that The Weeknd(a co-creator of the show) must be sexy, a wrong one. “He’s so rapey,” comes the verdict of Jocelyn’s best friend Leia (Rachel Sennott). “Yeah, I kind of like that about him,” the young singer replies. Depp and Tesfaye share a form of anti-chemistry, managing the difficult act of being repellent, even as they are drawn together.
The important thing with The Idol is to meet it on its own terms. At Cannes, where it premiered, it was widely lampooned for its writing (“Twitter is calling her the human cum sock!” one character yells) and its gratuitous (and ridiculous) sexuality. But those familiar with Levinson’s work on projects like Assassination Nation and Euphoria will understand, instinctively, that realism is not the point. He weaponises the “style over substance” critique to make, in turn, a critique of style over substance. The superficiality of modern culture, the vapidity of online discourse, the aimlessness of 21st-century youth: these are all generational concerns.
The Idol doesn’t quite manage the universality that has made Euphoria the canonical text for Gen Z. But in its perverse, almost horrific, take on the processed frailty of the human form – the disconnect between tortured psyche and toned body – it comes close to some profound insight into our times. Striking and sordid, you’ll want to jump straight in the shower after an hour in The Idol’s polluting company.
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