Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an angelic 16 year old who flies to L.A. with dreams of being a catwalk star. She becomes acquainted with two models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), and a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone). As politeness quickly gives way to backhanded compliments, it becomes immediately clear that the foundation for this relationship will not be built on friendship and support, but competition, ruthlessness and obsession. Sarah and Gigi proudly discuss the surgical modifications they’ve had to make themselves beautiful. They therefore see Jesse–a natural and pure beauty who also has youth on her side–as a very real threat to their throne. Only Ruby seems to have genuine affection for the new girl, but she too wields an untrustworthy eye.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest fantasia is a film obsessed with surface pleasures. His last film Only God Forgives was booed at Cannes for being a hollow exercise in kaleidoscopic style over substance. The Neon Demon won’t do much to win over his detractors as it too proved equally divisive at Cannes this year for its extreme artistic choices. Unlike Only God Forgives though, the lavish presentation here is more appropriate to the backdrop. The film unfolds in a dreamlike impression of the L.A. fashion world where image is queen and beauty is conqueror. Everything seems custom-fitted to present reflections and refractions: Jesse and Ruby first converse via their reflections in a dressing room, Jesse meets Sarah and Gigi in a bathroom during a lavish party where mirrors dominate every frame. It’s all there to ensure that, whether it be a wrinkle in the skin or a crack in the smile, there’s no chance of missing that first imperfection. Flawless it all should remain, with any faults to be immediately nipped, tucked or plucked away. When a boy after Jesse’s heart (Karl Glusman) challenges the concept with the age-old argument, “it’s what’s underneath that counts,” he is told: “Beauty isn’t everything. Beauty is the only thing.”
Taking cues from his recent work shooting lavish and expensive fashion commercials and working here with cinematographer Natasha Braier, Refn transforms The Neon Demon into an aesthetic dream house. The credits unfold over falling glitter as hallucinatory colors excite the eyes, while Cliff Martinez’s pulsing synth score stimulates the ears. The compositions are wide and bold, either stripped bare with voids of brilliant white or drenched in primary-color neon that Refn has proudly appropriated from Kenneth Anger, Mario Bava, and Dario Argento. In Refn’s world everything is presented as tableau. Even moments between photoshoots appear posed and choreographed. Ever since Drive, the filmmaker has been ruthlessly scaling back on dialogue, finding image to be his preferred form of communication. As a result, entire conversations seem to unfold in The Neon Demon through nothing but glances and body language. It’s fitting as models are not expected emote with their voice but impress with their body. Under such overbearing style, the performances can come across as stilted and unnatural, but with actresses as gifted as Fanning and Malone in the mix it’s clear this is not as much an artistic flaw as it is a decision.
Jesse is surrounded by women who aspire to be preserved and worshiped. They don’t only demand attention, they need it to survive. There’s a sense that some of these models suddenly found no use for a heartbeat and simply remained empty and poised. At times they look like mannequins, at others they look like corpses. Makeup artist Ruby even moonlights as a technician at a local morgue where she is responsible for sprucing up cadavers before they are buried or burned. In L.A., even the dead are given makeovers and improvements. Both Sarah and Gigi–pale blondes, like Jesse–are as ghostly as they are glamorous. Like vampires suddenly free to walk under the Hollywood sun, there is something inhuman about them. Their cruelty to Jesse reaches beyond words. There’s genuine threat and danger to them but we aren’t entirely sure why. For much of the film’s running time they seem to be blank canvases waiting to be painted on, like white snow beneath a bucket of hot blood. Consequently there becomes no doubt–this being a Refn film after all–that things will ultimately descend into some sort of grand guignol. Early on, after Jesse accidentally cuts her hand on a shard of broken mirror, Sarah tries to suck the wound dry causing Jesse to flee in terror and confusion. Similarly, Ruby becomes infatuated with Jesse and sees her virginal purity as the quench for her own sexual thirst. With these two scenes, the sinister undercurrent bubbling beneath The Neon Demon eventually rises to the surface. It is here the film fully transforms, just as Jesse herself transforms and blooms by embracing her beauty, into a fully-fledged horror film.
Sex and violence have always been obsessions for Refn but this might be his sexiest and most violent film yet. Yes, the film is painted with varying depictions of scantily-clad women and his primary emulsion is blood-red yet the visceral thrills are more complex than that, more subconscious. The film first sinks its teeth in via an unnerving sequence in which Jesse finds her squalid motel room invaded by an intruder. The intruder just so happens to be a mountain lion which has, presumably, escaped from a local zoo. Plot-wise, this scene has little to do with the rest of the movie but metaphorically, it is everything. Upon seeing the creature, Jesse faints. But the way Refn stages it, the faint appears to come from ecstasy rather than fear. Somehow, this strange moment becomes one of the sexiest in the picture. Not only does it signify Jesse’s own blossoming into a powerful creature, but there is a sexual awakening triggered by the lion’s presence; a passage of rights from girlhood into womanhood. Later on, when Jesse recounts the story of a childhood nickname bestowed upon her by her mother–“Dangerous”–you will find yourself thinking back to that lion and understanding its relevance. For the remainder of the film there is mention of a young girl–“Lolita-young,” we are told–in the room next to Jesse’s who appears to be repeatedly tormented and violated. Is this terrifying subplot to do with Jesse’s naivety and innocence being left behind for the wolves following her mutation upon seeing the lion? Or is it just another part of Refn’s provocation? I believe the conclusion is your own to make.
There are moments of repulsive beauty in The Neon Demon, and extremities so ridiculous they become glorious. For the majority of its running time the film feels like a perfume ad laced with arsenic but by the end it thrills in the way pure, down and dirty horror movies thrill. We first meet Jesse covered in fake blood posed like a Prada-clad slasher victim for a photo-shoot and by the end, naked women are showering themselves clean of the real thing. There is a glee to the violence and a humor that Refn isn’t afraid to ask his audience to indulge in and enjoy. It rewards you with the visceral experience that many felt Only God Forgives promised but sorely lacked. By the time the film is alternating between lesbianism, necrophilia and cannibalism on a scene-by-scene basis you can’t help but shrug, laugh and go along for the ride.
From his vibrant aesthetic to the divisive audience reception, Nicolas Winding Refn has always been a filmmaker of extremes. As an exercise in style, The Neon Demon soars in moments of maximalism and minimalism alike. A strobe-light performance-art sequence at the beginning of the film will push your retinas to the limit whilst simultaneously battering your local cinema’s sound system. But by the film’s end Refn knows that a simple close-up is enough to make his point heard. He avoids making a film that feels like a cautionary tale or a damnation by presenting us with an L.A. that is removed from reality, a reflection from a cracked mirror. This is another fairy tale, a twisted fever dream where beauty and aesthetics are not just hollow window dressing, but tools of delusion, destruction and despair. It is a film born from the imagination of a filmmaker who believes in cinema as a visual medium and genre storytelling as a legitimate art form. Yes, beauty isn’t everything. But in Refn’s cinema, it can be the only thing.