The Neon Demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, sees Elle Fanning’s Jesse, a beautiful small-town girl, moving to L.A. and finding herself negotiating a path through the city’s fashion scene, surrounded by a glistening wave of beauty that’s powered by sinister vampiric urges, full of envy, obsession, necrophilia and cannibalism.
The film moves at a cool, dreamlike, almost ambient pace, a world away from the ADHD editing of a Michael Bay film, but it never meanders, its sense of menace and ugliness building assuredly.
Then Refn goes for a bravura ending, one that has seen people throwing their arms up in disgust and outrage. It’s certainly horrific , but it’s also a thoroughly logical and quite perfect summation, and definitely not easy to forget (should you feel the need to). It’s also very funny, in its own darkly twisted way.
Fanning is terrific in this. It would have been very easy (read: lazy) to have her portray the innocent swept up in terrible events beyond her control, but both actress and filmmakers are too smart for that. The actress plays Jesse with a knowing air – she’s new to the world, certainly, but she’s not unaware of her currency in that world. She knows she’s pretty and that she can make money from being pretty, as her character says.
There are a number of power plays twisting through the cast of characters, and Jesse is at the centre of them: everyone wants something from her and she knows this. But she also wants something from them. Refn plays with the audience’s expectations as to whether or not we should like her as a central character, and it’s this ambiguity that gives her edge.
Both she and the rest of the cast work hard to give their characters inner life, it’s one of Refn’s traits, allowing his actors to fill in the blanks through… well, acting, and it works well here. Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote and Karl Glusman populate Jesse’s orbit, and it’s a fine cast (not to use that word in such a distasteful way as Nivola’s character uses it in the film), while Keanu Reeves is almost unrecognisable as the truly awful dirtbag who runs the motel in which Jesse resides.
Refn is defiantly channelling Dario Argento’s Suspiria here, not just with the colour splashed visuals, but with the whispery, insistent voices of dark magics seeping through every frame, and Cliff Martinez’s electronica beats pulsing and throbbing out a suitably modernist proxy for Goblin. Of course, The Neon Demon doesn’t take place in rain-drenched Munich and Freiburg but in sun-splashed Los Angeles, nevertheless these two films would make a superbly sympathetic double bill. Or, given how brutal each film is, should that be a superbly unsympathetic double bill!?
This would be the perfect point to sing the praises of Natasha Braier’s cinematography, Erin Benach’s costumes and Elliott Hostetter’s production design, all of which are gorgeous. Refn and his collaborators don’t skimp when it comes to replicating the high end excesses of the fashion world, I doubt we’ll be treated to a more visually ravishing movie this year.
This is a filmmaker is in absolute control of his craft, telling the story he wants to tell with precision but, like all great art, forcing the viewer to bring in their own experiences and prejudices. His visual style is all glamour and gloss but the emotions lurk beneath this gossamer thin veneer, they’re dirty and ugly and perfectly 21st century human. The concerns of the film are narcissism fuelled by the fashion industry and by our wider culture, and a hard stare at the way we both deify and objectify young women.
But he’s also asking us to look at the transient nature of beauty in the moment, in the right moment, and at our own need to possess and, ultimately, to kill that beauty. The Neon Demon’s world is one of mixed messages, as is ours.
Is Refn telling us anything we don’t already know or suspect about the fashion industry, or indeed about ourselves? No, but the journey he takes us on while reinforcing that knowledge or those opinions is what makes the story worth telling.
Anyone who thinks The Neon Demon is a case of style over substance has simply been seduced by the sheen. Which is rather one of the points here, no? But those who think this are perhaps cut from the same cloth as those who walked away from Only God Forgives disappointed that it wasn’t two hours of Ryan Gosling wading through fist fights.
Refn’s film has proved to be divisive and that seems justifiable. Like the world it thoroughly eviscerates, you’ll either be utterly repulsed by it or enthralled by it. And that’s great, it’s what I love about both Refn and this movie. This is still fiercely the same director who made the Pusher trilogy, his views of the underbelly still as savage, his filmmaking style still as uncompromising. Refn is punk: vulgar, energetic and wonderful.
You don’t like it!? The Neon Demon seems to be saying almost as a clarion call for Refn’s entire body of work. Okay, great, it’s not for you. Fuck off. If you do, then allow its plumped, sumptuously lipsticked lips to lock onto yours and you’ll be rewarded with the smell of the fetid, rotting meat breath that follows. For me, it’s one of my favourite films of 2016.
The Neon Demon ain’t pretty, but it sure is beautiful.