Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest dreamy nightmare might be his most divisive film to date – it may also be his best. The Neon Demon sees the fluorescent aesthetic he’s developed in his last couple films (Drive, Only God Forgives) applied to the LA modelling scene, and it’s a perfect fit all around.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year-old aspiring model who has come to LA from a small town on her own. She gets taken under the wing of make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who is understandably concerned for her safety in the often sordid industry. Young Jesse soon becomes the envy of all the models getting work done to hide the fact that they’re well into their twenties and therefore over the hill in their chosen industry. Needless to say, things get ugly.
Once again Refn is hitting that sweet spot between high art and lowlifes, beauty and horror, prestige and schlock. The narrative mirrors elements of Aronofsky’s Black Swan at times, but ventures much further down the rabbit hole of gore and depravity. It starts off as almost Lynchian in nature before becoming something much more akin to an Italian Giallo film while also recalling modern gems like Under the Skin and Spring Breakers.
The opening shot has Jesse in the soon-to-be-iconic blood-soaked make-up, lying on a couch for a portfolio shoot. The score pulsates while she lies still as a doll. Cut-to the aftermath, fake blood is a bitch to clean off. The illusion is destroyed, but it’s just the first of many. It’s cliché now, as it’s how Refn also described Drive, but The Neon Demon is a dream that turns into a nightmare. When experienced in a proper theatre setting (as it should be) the striking images along with Cliff Martinez’s hypnotic music have an entrancing effect.
You don’t have to know the modelling world to understand that it’s filled with vampires and vanity, and Refn plays with this knowledge. We share Ruby’s concern for young Jesse, as she looks like the definition of vulnerability. She has no family and is staying in a dive motel with a sleazy manager (played against type by Keanu Reeves). At one point she tells Ruby “I’m not as helpless as I look” and we don’t know whether or not to believe her. We begin to see her effect on the modelling world’s influencers and the question becomes less about who she is, and we begin to wonder what she is. While clearly beautiful, Fanning is in fact decidedly plain by modelling standards, the same way Carey Mulligan would have been if she were cast in the role as she was initially supposed to be. The models whom she drives mad with jealousy (played perfectly by Aussies Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote), look much more the part, suggesting that Jesse has a power that goes far beyond her looks.
Of the many conversations the film will spark, gender representation is sure to be a big one. While Refn certainly demonstrates a male gaze that’s taken to the extreme by the end, it makes perfect sense given the subject matter. Prior to this his films have been much more male dominated and testosterone driven, with women being relegated to the periphery or love interests at best. It’s worth noting that this is also the first time he’s worked with a female cinematographer (Natasha Braier) and collaborated with female screenwriters (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham), I’d be curious to know how their writing process worked and who would claim authorship of certain parts. When the film was first announced in Variety, Refn was quoted as saying “One morning I woke and realized I was both surrounded and dominated by women. Strangely, a sudden urge was planted in me to make a horror film about vicious beauty.” The final result is dedicated to his wife, actress Liv Corfixen. What all of this says about his attitude towards women will likely be a topic of hot debate.
The Neon Demon is constantly playing with audience expectation. The good looking, young photographer with a nice car that Jesse meets online should be a huge douche, but he turns out be nicer than you could possibly imagine. The established, successful photographer gives off a predatory vibe but may just be an intense, legit artist. The male characters begin as archetypes before almost disappearing from the narrative completely. In an industry where men supposedly call the shots, they end up being completely inconsequential. The women are the ones with the power and dimension. The film not only passes the Bechdel test, it fucks, kills, and eats it – and not necessarily in that order.
I’d be remiss not mention Jena Malone’s performance, which many will likely call “brave” and provocative for one scene in particular, but she deserves credit for the less flashy scenes as well. At any given moment the supporting women threaten to steal the movie from the protagonist, which is ironic considering the narrative. Needless to say everyone is well cast, even Reeves who provides much needed humour and levity just by being there.
The Neon Demon is not for the faint of heart (or those with a sensitivity to strobing lights). Even before things get really nasty, there’s a constant foreboding fear that permeates the story which requires you to embrace the discomfort. Audiences will likely either love it or hate it, but it might take them a couple days to figure out which. I recommend going to a late show with some friends, if nothing else The Neon Demon should surely provide some good fodder for conversation.