A precocious 16 year old model is swallowed up by the fashion industry in Nicolas Winding Refn’s garish, glorious showpiece.
The Neon Demon is part lurid exploitation movie, part luxurious photo-spread in a fashion magazine you barely have the strength to lift, or the patience to make past all the adverts. It is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16 year-old model, newly arrived in LA with little more than her youth and innocence as a calling card. Despite her apparent naivety, Jesse quickly finds herself working with the most influential artists and designers, who are hypnotised by her unmanufactured beauty, and makes an enemy of the women she’s in direct competition with.
It’s a simple premise, on which a whole walk-in wardrobe of style and daringly pure cinema hang.
Jesse has an intangible, indefinable quality; one her fellow models struggle to explain, but are threatened by all the same. The quality is beauty, sure, but there’s something much more abstract at play. The Neon Demon is equally intangible. I saw the film only 24 hours ago, and I’m struggling to keep a mental grasp of it because it has such little material existence.
But to accuse The Neon Demon of being all surface is… well… entirely the point. “Beauty isn’t the most important thing, beauty is everything” And that’s exactly what this is. The most beautiful film ever to glide past your eyes and land so briefly in the palm of your hand, before your attention is caught by some newer captivation. Parallels with fame are easy to draw.
This is a distillation of the many themes director Nicolas Winding Refn has already explored – beauty, horror, high art, high gloss, – but here the machismo lens is replaced by a female one. Refn has enlisted the help of playwrights Mary Laws and Polly Stenham to flesh out his central cast, creating an extraordinary dissection of powerful, violent women.
The Neon Demon forces you to think about how you look at women… I claim to be a feminist, but I still have the libidinous glare of a character from a Carry-On movie, I also now have a daughter on the way – all of which has led to an increasing personal awareness of the male gaze and the value of representation. Refn is an anarchist when it comes to this. He’s happiest when causing his audience discomfort… Lingering, clinical shots of models in flesh coloured underwear, walking back and forth in front of a barely cognisant fashion designer, make you consider the dehumanising affect this has on women. The grotesqueness of Elle’s introductory amateur photoshoot, with her throat slashed and blood pooled below her bare foot is treated as entirely mundane by Christina Hendricks’ talent agent. The intimidating first encounter with influential photographer Jack McCarther (he never sees new girls) and the closed-set, nude shoot, where you assume the worst will happen, makes you reflect on the abuse of power and consider your own moral code when it comes to how images of women are created.
Jesse isn’t as naive as we assume. During her rise to the top there is a sudden transformation (perhaps too sudden for the rhythm of the film). Jesse is prematurely driven down the catwalk into the harsh spotlight, but it’s clear she’s always had this intangible power within her. Much like when Laura Harring turns the key of the blue box in Mulholland Dr. reality takes a shift. We lose Jesse in a dreamlike world of neon and narcissism, one which she won’t wake up from. Although perhaps narcissism is the wrong term. As Jesse states, “I don’t want to be like them. They want to be like me.” She is entirely aware of the affect she has on people.
Most impressive in the ensemble cast is Jena Malone, who plays Elle’s only genuine ally, Ruby, make-up artist to the living and the dead. Her bravery during the film’s most difficult to watch scene is extraordinary. Bella Heathcote and supermodel Abbey Lee play Elle’s antagonistic model friends, and although their dialogue is sparse, the hurt and the hostility in their expressions are perhaps ironically the most humane thing in the film.
Horror-geeks will easily spot certain movie references throughout, and these will playfully colour expectations of what is to come. Much of the opening looks exactly like Suspiria – from the lighting to the sets to the wallpaper even – so you may expect some witchery and giallo-esque bloodshed. Predatory feline symbolism is everywhere, especially of the big cat variety, so personally I was expecting some Cat People style transitioning sequences.
Certainly if you’ve seen Starry Eyes – an underrated low-budget horror in which an ingenue actress is slowly transformed into a vampiric creature by a satanic Hollywood cult in return for fame – then you’ll probably expect this film to take similar turns. However The Neon Demon delivers its wickedness delicately, saving its true intentions till the final few scenes, which are wrapped up in pure Grand-Guignol gleeful horror, creating a stunning visual mixture of Dario Argento and Helmut Newton.
I can see why you might hate it. Probably for the same reasons why you might hate the fashion industry: it’s excessive, ridiculous, self obsessed… But unlike Refn’s previous work – Only God Forgives in particular – it’s fully aware of its own hilarity. In fact there are moments of pure comedy, just as long as you don’t mind the sting that comes with it.
What’s the moral of The Neon Demon? After all it’s a simple tale, morals should be easy to draw out… Naivety will make you, but also destroy you. Same goes for arrogance. Don’t screw another girl out of a job. The brightest flame burns quickest. Watch your back… It’s all generally helpful advice for anyone pursuing a career in modelling.
Ultimately, The Neon Demon is the most beautiful film. It has to be. You wouldn’t believe in this world if it wasn’t. I counted at least 50 perfect shots in this movie. Every frame, every lighting choice, every piece of art design – from the vintage flowery wallpaper of Elle’s seedy motel, to the expanse of infinite white of the photography studio – everything has been designed to perfection.
I loved every wildly pretentious, baffling, beautiful frame of it.