The Neon Demon (2016)
Beauty is vicious
The opening frame of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon reveals a young female, Jesse (played by Elle Fanning), sprawled on a luxurious satin sofa. While the positioning of this ‘model’ is certainly one of allure, the thick red blood oozing down her arm — which also happens to be spilling out onto the floor — obscures this otherwise picturesque scene, the image becoming a little hazier and uncomfortable to watch the longer it lingers. As bursts of incandescent light illuminate the frame, accompanied by piercing sounds of clicking cameras, one can’t help but wonder what it is we’re really looking at: is this a photography shoot or a brutal crime scene, this teenage victim’s body stained in vivid crimson, stemming from a fatal wound along her throat. A strong visual representation, this introductory shot, while slightly difficult to decipher, encapsulates The Neon Demon perfectly, writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn indicating just how blurred that delicate line between beauty and the macabre can really be.
Hypnotic, seductive, flawed and twisted, The Neon Demon follows 16-year-old aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning), a small-town starry-eyed runaway having recently moved to the City of Angels to peruse a career in high fashion. As luck would have it, Jesse’s youthful innocence, vitality and natural good looks immediately get her signed up by a notable modelling agency, where she soon lands a top-level gig with high profile photographer Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington), along with various spots at sought-out voguish fashion shows. At the same time, Jesse receives attention of a different kind — intense infatuation from a trio of ravenous vixens. You see, after befriending professional makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), Jesse agrees to an obligatory social ‘hang out’ at a trendy nightclub, where she is reluctantly introduced to a couple of envious, beauty-obsessed women, both fellow models themselves: the ‘aging’ Sarah (an entrancing Abbey Lee) and cosmetic-surgery addict Gigi (Bella Heathcote). As the wholesome Jesse gets sucked deeper and deeper into the vain and narcissistic world of haute couture — a domain that slowly begins to psychologically consume her — a more dangerous threat awaits, with Ruby, Sarah and Gigi’s neurotic fixation growing into something truly malevolent, the three willing to do whatever it takes to absorb Jesse’s innate magnetism, even if it means ‘literally’ sucking the life and fresh-faced purity out of Jesse herself.
A provocative 120-minute art exhibition aimed squarely at the senses, The Neon Demon starts out in a shimmery, sparkling manner, the lead-in credits materializing over a color-shifting velvet surface. It is here where we see a stylized ‘NWR’ (Nicolas Winding Refn’s signature branding) stamped in the center of the screen, these initials (a parody of a cosmetic label perhaps?) rendered in an ultra-modern font. Is the mark a form of self-awareness or self-importance? Either way, this bizarre title card really sets the tone — it’s bold and glamorous in design, egotistical, unnervingly eerie and a little tricky to decode. (What does it all mean?)
Written by Nicolas Winding Refn — with a screenplay penned by Refin, along with relatively untested writers in Mary Laws and Polly Stenham — the film, as a narrative, is never quite as absorbing as its sensuous, erotic and powerfully challenging imagery, The Neon Demon a feast of light and sound. Ravishingly photographed by cinematographer Natasha Braier, The Rover (2014), and featuring a pulsating electropop synth score by former Red Hot Chilli Peppers drummer now composer Cliff Martinez, Only God Forgives (2013), this sharp, modish thriller is dripping with Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s distinct aesthetic style. Bathed in gaudy colors — think searing reds and stark blues — neo-surrealist vistas and deluge of visual metaphors, The Neon Demon is a truly mesmerizing, hallucinatory experience, its disquieting atmosphere adding a visceral value to its wickedly unique premise.
Clearly taking cues from Italian giallo cinema, particularly Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), the movie’s horror-esque elements are by far its most admirable, the narrative delving deeper into the grotesque the further our characters plunge into depravity, the comically dark, ultra-graphic final act (in my opinion) making the whole nasty pageantry worthwhile. From vampirism to necrophilia, with occultism and pedophilia subtly hinted at, The Neon Demon often toggles between being all-out arty-farty and a trashy grindhouse romp, this experimental genre-hopping keeping proceedings tasteful and engaging in the midst of its half-starved storyline, the plot lacking real ‘flesh,’ much like the film’s raw-boned protagonist (and antagonists for that matter), the entire female cast working as stilted dolls posed to perfection.
Within its skin-deep story, however — which, at times, can feel mildly confused and incoherent — Refn endeavors to pound home a steely message about the oppressive beauty standards in look-and-label fashion, a murderous industry where splendor is manufactured and a very fine line exists between ambition and ruthlessness, and aspiration and resentment. Reflecting the age of entitlement, The Neon Demon also has a quasi-millennial aura about it, with unscrupulous self-seeking and inwardness trumping unified morality — or a societal good, so to speak — each character God of their respective domain. But could this conceited, nauseating superficiality be filmmaker Refn’s desired effect, the entire movie perhaps a microcosm for today’s ferocious and cannibalistic catwalk enterprise — it’s self-indulgent, artificial and morbidly flamboyant, just like contemporary fashion.
On the whole, performances are rather cold and vacant, with characters never coming across as living, breathing people. Elle Fanning, Maleficent (2014), is sweet and sugary as the ‘diamond in a sea of glass,’ ‘It Girl’ Jesse, even if the 18-year-old starlet struggles to sell her character’s more bitchy traits. Having strutted her stuff on the runway of a couple of Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows, model-turned-actress Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), glows as the devious and deranged, drop-dead-gorgeous Sarah, even if Lee feels slightly miscast — as in, way too smokin’ — to play a bitter, ‘last season’ model. Either way, Lee’s nonchalant cynicism and sheer snarkiness make her a cast standout. Both Jena Malone, Sucker Punch (2011), and Bella Heathcote, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), do all that they can with their underwritten parts as makeup artist/ morgue beautician Ruby and rival model Gigi, Heathcote probably cast for her mannequin-like appearance and Malone for her spectacular cherry-lip look. Lastly, Keanu Reeves, John Wick (2014), hams it up as unsavory motel manager Hank; although, I must admit, Reeves’ less-than-burly physique makes him an odd choice to portray a seedy and unmannerly intimidating sleaze.
Certainly not for everybody, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is an self-serving celebration of cinema — you’d either be totally engulfed by its exuberance or simply shrug it off as obscure symbolism or ridiculous abstraction. At one point in the picture, elite fashion designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) assuredly declares that, ‘beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.’ The same can possibly be said about Refn’s film; it’s visually flawless and stunningly dressed, a surging sight — just like a pencil-thin waistline. But is there really anything under its blemish-free exterior? Undoubtedly open to numerous interpretations, The Neon Demon is a sick, slick, bloodthirsty hot mess.
Italian connoisseur of chic Elsa Schiaparelli once stated that, ‘In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous,’ The Neon Demon perhaps a byproduct of its era, Refn ensuring that his Demon stand out, just like a brash pair of neon tainted heels.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner