The Neon Demon
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Opens June 24
What does it feel like to be the sun in the middle of winter; to walk into a room and have everyone marvel at your beauty with a mix of starry-eyed admiration and poisonous jealousy? Most people couldn’t begin tell you, but for Jesse (Elle Fanning), the 16-year-old aspiring model at the center of Nicolas Winding Refn’s glitter-dusted horror The Neon Demon, “it’s everything.” Fanning is certainly the warmest force in Refn’s latest icy creation, which portrays LA’s vapid fashion industry as a cold, (un)dead place—full of catty insults and occasional cannibalism. Sleekly lensed by cinematographer Natasha Braier and with a space-age-meets-disco score by Cliff Martinez (who also composed the music for Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives), The Neon Demon offers up the type of sensual feast cinematic hedonists have come to expect from the director’s work—but it also proves that purely pretty things aren’t sustainably interesting.
With no roots back home and no contacts in California, Jesse glides into Refn’s noir-inspired version of LA seemingly out of the ether—it’s never explained what happened to her family or how she has the cash to pay for the seedy Pasadena motel she makes her temporary home. Replete with dingy tropical-print drapes and a leering manager (played by a husky-voiced Keanu Reeves), the highway pit-stop is the first of many places in the city where menacing forces seem to lurk in wait.
Shockingly enough, the modeling world isn’t an environment that fosters sisterly solidarity, and Jesse makes fast enemies with two steely-eyed femmes in particular (played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). She does manage to find an ally in Ruby (Jena Malone), however, a makeup artist who moonlights at a morgue, but the devious glint in her knowing looks suggest darker motivations might be at work.
Teasing the audience with prolonged suspense is one of Refn’s specialties, and at its best, the sensation manifests itself viscerally—blood pounding to the rhythm of Martinez’s throbbing beats. Take the scene where an infinitely creepy photographer circles Jesse like a wolf, demanding she strip off her clothes when it’s just the two of them alone in his glaring, white studio. Is something terrible about to happen? Or something maniacally beautiful? But there are also plenty of instances when the film’s momentum gets bogged down by these formal indulgences—one kaleidoscopic sequence in which Jesse is inexplicably transformed (or maybe just transfixed) by a flashing geometric shape stands out as especially extraneous.
Considering all the factors that are working against her, Jesse manages to climb the industry ladder with seemingly little effort, winning the favor of a renowned designer, played to affected perfection by Alessandro Nivola. But what exactly does Jesse have that the other girls don’t? Is it the perfect (and non-manufactured) symmetry of her face? Is it the look of untainted innocence? There’s plenty of on-the-nose pontificating that goes on in the film about the nature of beauty—“beauty isn’t everything,” Nivola’s character says at one point, “it’s the only thing.”
With her long neck and giant Twiggy eyes, Fanning certainly has whatever that indescribable “it” factor is. Striking a balance between naivety, precociousness, and eventually madness, she’s endlessly watchable. But there comes a point where being made to look at her feels icky, like when she’s violently forced to basically fellate a knife, for example. Refn has talked about the conscious decision to shift away from male-driven films to stories that focus on women, but The Neon Demon isn’t so much “about” women as it is just plain staring at them. (The decidedly male gaze is especially evident in another utterly superfluous scene in which Heathcote and Lee rinse each other off in the shower in slow motion.)
It’s not until we arrive at the third act that the film finally nails the tone Refn has been striving for, relinquishing any attempt to take itself seriously and unleashing the trash-camp-gore it’s been hording beneath the surface. Here, the monstrosities of beauty are fully revealed in an orgiastic display of flesh, blood, and glittery eye shadow—it’s just a shame we didn’t get there sooner.