Reviewing The Neon Demon, the latest film from director Nicolas Winding Refn, is a bit like reviewing a film made by David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky. The normal rules of narrative and structure don’t apply, making it particularly difficult describe what the film is about and say whether or not it succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish.
The film introduces us to the character of Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, a sixteen year old orphan that has come to Los Angeles looking to make her fortune as a fashion model. She befriends a makeup artist by the name of Ruby, played by Jena Malone, who takes her out to a party with fashion models Sarah and Gigi, played by Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote. At the party, Gigi and Sarah start asking questions about Jesse’s background and who she’s sleeping with to try and get ahead. It quickly becomes apparent that Jesse is still young and virginal, unblemished by the fashion world of cosmetic surgery and cutthroat competition. The film then continues as something of a meditation on the nature of beauty, contrasting the hollow pretense of the fashion industry with that of true beauty which is natural and unfabricated.
Filled with sequences of surreal colors, light, and sound, The Neon Demon is an entrancing and mesmerizing sensory experience. Scenes flow from one into another with a quality that is both ethereal and horrific. Director Refn appears to have a very jaded view of the fashion world, and this film seems to be something of a statement on the dark dog-eat-dog underbelly that lies beneath the glitz and glamour. I found it to be a captivating exploration of beauty and artifice, innocence and callousness. However, in the end, I don’t think it really works.
In the documentary My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Refn describes his style of filmmaking as being comparable to the sex act. The way he explains it, his films slowly work themselves up until they explode into climaxes of violence. His point is that you lose something if you simply blast violent imagery onto the screen; he prefers to provide a slow hook that builds into something increasingly intense. With Neon Demon I was taken by the hook and wanted to follow it through to its conclusion. The violence in this film, unfortunately, comes across as more jarring than it does a climax. It feels less like a release and more like one of the partners has become incontinent, self-indulgently crapping at the very moment that they should be exploding. The scenes of necrophilia, murder, and cannibalism seem out of place with the flow and energy the film establishes. It’s as if the director got so wrapped up in creating some of the most gut-churning imagery he could come up with, he forgot about the rest of the film he had been making.
Another complaint I have with the movie was his choice of Elle Fanning for the lead role. While she is certainly a good looking young woman, at no point did I see what would make her stand out against the other beauties on screen. Her attempts to project naivety and innocence came across to me as more “little girlish” than as something genuinely pure and seductive. I had a hard time buying that hardened fashion industry veterans would find themselves falling head-over-heels for her, and that her looks would drive her rivals into a murderous frenzy.
In total, I can’t really recommend Neon Demon. For all that it entranced me and sucked me in; it just didn’t deliver in the end. I felt like the director lost track of what he was doing, and spent more time trying to shock than he did trying to bring his ideas and reflections to a satisfying conclusion. I didn’t buy Elle Fanning as the lead, and would have liked to see both her and other characters developed into something more full and interesting. I also felt like the film was trying to make a statement about the dehumanizing cost of our cultural obsession with beauty and fashion, but in the end lost the thread of what it was trying to say and instead settled for gross-out self-indulgence.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn (Story and Screenplay), Mary Laws and Polly Stenham (Screenplay)
Producers: Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval
Runtime: 117 minutes
Awards: Official Selection: 2016 Cannes Film Festival
A provocative horror-thriller that follows Jesse (Fanning), a starry-eyed sixteen-year-old who comes to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a runway model. Lying about her age in order to score gigs, she struggles to claw her way up the ladder of Hollywood’s cutthroat modeling industry. Her career takes a turn when she befriends snarky makeup artist Ruby (Malone), who plugs her into the city’s nightclub scene, introducing her to Gigi and Sarah, two model friends in their early twenties who are already becoming yesterday’s news. But as Jesse’s star rises, her virgin innocence attracts jealous eyes, making her vulnerable to violence…