Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws & Polly Stenham
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, and Bella Heathcote
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You know what my mother used to call me? Dangerous. 'You're a dangerous girl.' She was right. I am dangerous."
In the world of The Neon Demon, “beauty isn’t everything—it’s the only thing,” a blunt proclamation that’s actually verbalized by one of its characters. Not that it exactly needs to be explicated since there’s no missing Nicolas Winding Refn’s preoccupation with beauty in this exquisitely crafted, visually sumptuous fetish chamber of a film. A sleek, meticulous piece of work, The Neon Demon dazzles and allures, its glossy surfaces concealing an ugly, rotting core lurking beneath. For if there’s anything approaching a point in the film, it’s this: some things are so beautiful that they can’t help but attract ugliness. They’re almost too beautiful for this world, meant only to be consumed by it. It’s the sort of message that could only be delivered by a horror movie monogrammed with its director’s initials.
Otherwise, The Neon Demon feels like something of a black-hearted piss-take, one that’s been calibrated for maximum exploitation. Hell, it’s an exploitation film about exploitation, as it charts the dark descent of Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old who moves to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a fashion model. Almost immediately, she turns heads of photographers and fellow models alike: while the former are eager to feature her in photo shoots, the latter become territorial. Two models in particular (Bella Heathcote & Abbey Lee) become especially paranoid: now that they’ve reached their early-twenties, has their time come? Will they be replaced by this nubile newcomer? What—if anything—can they do to maintain their spot in an industry that would just as soon recycle them as if they were fashion accessories?
Obviously, Refn lays bare some concerns that might as well be cast in a neon glow: on a surface level, The Neon Demon feigns at being a satire about how this industry—if not our society—pits women against each other in a savage competition for attention and fame. Women here are reduced to objects for all the men in their lives: Jesse is nothing but a way into the business for her photographer boyfriend, and the various established photographers seemingly can’t tell one girl from the next, at least until Jesse arrives on the scene. When she’s not dealing with these greasy predators, she’s fending off the unsettling advances of a sleazy motel operator (Keanu Reeves, weirdly menacing) who doubles as a pimp offering up some “real Lolita shit” in his other rooms. Her fellow women—including a makeup artist (Jena Malone) who takes her under a deceptive wing—can’t be trusted: this is a city and an industry that preys upon female flesh as if it were currency.
But to reduce The Neon Demon to these terms—and holy shit, does Refn practically invite you to do so with on-the-nose imagery and symbolism—is to only look skin-deep. To do so also presumes that its sympathies rest with anyone besides Jesse: no one besides her is portrayed in flattering terms, so the film is less about women navigating a corrupt, misogynist industry and more about the perils of beauty. More specifically, it details the perils of being a woman who knows her beauty is threatening. Despite her doe-eyed exterior, Jesse is no ingénue by film’s end, when she realizes just what kind of captivating power she holds thanks to her looks. This is her real transgression: daring to realize her own power as a woman, a sin for which she is swiftly punished.
Her gruesome punishment—which grows all the more queasy and lurid in the aftermath—makes it tempting to read The Neon Demon as a parable for vanity. Never mind the fact that Refn monograms this film, but this also ignores the fact that Jesse is practically doomed as a victim from the opening frame, which finds her sprawled out on a couch, slathered in fake blood for a photoshoot. Save for Malone—whose shifting motivations make her a slippery character—everyone surrounding Jesse is painted in broad terms.
They’re all sharks circling the water, out for blood; it’s a repulsive bunch whose actual crimes are horrific, and their mixed fates (some go unpunished, some don’t) doesn’t make it any less clear that this is film should come with the cinematic equivalent of a “retweets do not equal endorsement” disclaimer. For a film that’s ultimately so indulgent in its depravity, it doesn’t exactly condone it—if anything, its absurdist glib streak all but underlines this fact. Sure, Refn wants you to squirm and be unsettled, but it’s all in the service of highlighting just how awful these people are. If The Neon Demon is truly about anything, it clearly critiques everyone but Jesse, who is admittedly more of an avatar than she is a character.
Acting as both foreshadowing and a mission statement, that stunning opening image of her crimson-spattered photoshoot practically encapsulates The Neon Demon, a film that mirrors its own protagonist: it’s gorgeous but also destined to be bathed in blood, as a grim fatalism effuses from its aesthetic contradictions. Los Angeles is both a moonlit heaven and a neon-bathed hell; a booming party becomes a foreboding incantation of pulsing beats and strobe lights; a sensual moment is intercut with necrophilia. For every beautiful thing, there’s something ugly waiting to swallow it—sometimes in the most literal sense imaginable.
Because the aesthetics linger more so than its sparse plot (which is deliberately scattered over 118 minutes), it’s fair to say this is Refn’s Eurohorror movie. Usually, such a comparison is kind of an easy, grab-bag shorthand that indicates general weirdness, but The Neon Demon is some straight-up Jess Franco shit, what with its willingness to weave alluring imagery, sensuality, cannibalism, vampirism, and necrophilia into one garish tapestry. Couching the film in the high-class milieu of the fashion world also subtly evokes Franco, a director who often mined the contrasts between high and low culture to arrive at some kind of obvious point. It must be said, however, that The Neon Demon is about the fashion industry just about as much as Vampyros Lesbos is about class warfare: like Franco, Refn ultimately sees his plot as a launching point for violence and sleaze, both of which are realized with uncommon artistry. In this world, even the gore is a beautiful, striking collection of bloodbaths and artisanal vomit.
Just as Jesse has a growing awareness of her own beauty, so too does Refn have a wry understanding of exactly what he’s up to. Every sequence of The Neon Demon is crafted just so—there’s a scrupulous, airless, almost mannered quality to the whole thing that’s constantly calling attention to itself. It wants you to gaze upon its bewitching, disarming artistry, which Refn deploys with a provocateur’s glee. You can sense him faintly giggling as he indulges every perverse impulse—in many ways, you wonder if he—like Jesse—doesn’t draw some sort of empowerment from the knowledge that he’s effectively showing off, alienating his audience every step of the way.
If nothing else, this is a rebuke for those longing to see Refn return to more accessible fare like Drive, a film that’s looking to be the true outlier in his oeuvre. With The Neon Demon, he seems to have taken this into account before responding upon an ornate letterhead that’s been stuffed inside lavish, blood-caked envelope: “kindly fuck off—with love, NWR.”
comments powered by Disqus Ratings: