When approaching a film as decadently lascivious as The Neon Demon, you should be aware that it wears its virtues on its sleeves: this is a headlong cautionary plunge into the pool of beauty and cruelty, opulence and vapidness, psychosexual madness and whatever the hell you’d classify a woman lapping up the blood from a younger model to be. It’s strange and baroque waters that Nicolas Winding Refn submerges us in here, but sadly they’re just as shallow as most of his onscreen fashionistas dressed to kill.
Refn is one of the most abrasive visualists of his generation, having gifted us with Bronson and Drive in the past. But after a furiously mellow revenger about nothing in 2013’s Only God Forgives, Refn returns with a movie that’s aggressively about its central thesis and the dangers of valuing what is only skin deep—and how the greatest threats to it might just come from within the feminine form.
This glistening menace is the siren that Elle Fanning’s 16-year-old Jesse embraces with a faux-naïveté, yet knowing covetousness. She’s a Georgian orphan fresh off the bus to LA when she is immediately seduced by her dreams. In fact, her relationship with the lifestyle has more or less been consummated by the opening shot, which Refn treats with about as much subtlety as anything else here.
Jesse starts the dreamy movie lathered in blood and with glitter in her eyes. It’s for a photoshoot and she isn’t dead, but already both her new industry and her movie audience is fetishizing her beauty, and its brief appeal for ravenous eyes that would like to see it destroyed before it ages another day.
Indeed, two such pupils belong to Ruby (Jena Malone) an instantly friendly makeup artist who marks Jesse to have it. She’s not alone. Ruby promptly introduces Jess to two fellow models Sarah and Gigi (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote), who in their 20s already feel the dimming light of the fashion industry’s ambivalence. Immediately threatened by Jesse, they don’t play nice with the ingénue. Luckily, the rest of the City of Angels is ready to sprinkle its fairy dust.
There’s the smiling devil Jan (Catherine Hendricks), who signs Jesse to an agency; then a creepy photographer (Desmond Harrington) who forces her to strip on her first day in front of his camera; there’s even that sleazy motel manager (Keanu Reeves) who offers her low-rent board, albeit with the unwritten quid pro quo that he’ll sneak into her bedroom on some given nights.
The Neon Demon does not take a moment to mince words or hide its neon-lit sign about the heinous allure of vanity, jealousy, and other taboos celebrated in the world of fashion for hundreds of years. And for the first half, it works as an intoxicating nightmare that only Refn can serve up with such sensual silliness. Like getting swept away in a sea of Fauvism art galleries, and just purely faux-Illuminati symbolism, it doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot but Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier sure paint breathtaking pictures of a world where beauty and benevolence carry on illicit rendezvouses in the dark.
As the subjects of this deified culture, Fanning, Lee, and Heathcote all get to wear some markedly brassy collections from Erin Benach, and each’s passion for staying in this fantasia is complemented by composer Cliff Martinez’s dreamlike surrender to nihilism. However, it is when the third act turns from on-the-nose allegory to grand guignol horror that the penny doesn’t so much drop as dissolve into stardust.
Refn forcibly clasps his influences, including Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Brian De Palma’s… well take your pick. There’s even a sequence where a cougar devours Fanning’s motel room that is probably a nod to Val Lewton’s Cat People, but like everything else it is so preposterous that it almost comes to naught. And at the heart of this is a script that is so obsessed with its model-thin metonymy that nobody has a whole hell of a lot to work with onscreen.
Elle Fanning is always a beguiling presence that can frequently play both the innocent and beyond her years old soul, but the combination here rings false as the character invented by a screenplay from Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham never amounts to more than a series of clichés and muddled subversions. If this ingénue character is supposed to have teeth, then they’re of the deciduous variety. Meanwhile, none of the supporting cast is allowed to play more than their attitudes, albeit Jena Malone at least teases of a more interesting character than what is presented.
But at the end of the day, she, like the film, is relegated in a third act plunge toward horror that it is easy to imagine is meant for the same catalogue as Polanski’s earliest chillers, like Rosemary’s Baby and especially Repulsion. Instead, it is so incongruent with what came before that it is merely repulsive, and a disappointment since it undersells what was a very entertaining if ludicrous strut down the illuminated runway to hell.