The Neon Demon Review
Vapid, shallow, ultra-competitive, beautiful, provocative, degrading, stunning, glamourous, amusing, stylized and orchestrated under the vison of one man – the fashion industry or a Nicolas Wining Winding Refn film? It seems with the polarising world of fashion and beauty director Refn has found his ultimate companion. When Alessandro Nivola’s arrogant fashion designer declares “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” it may as well be Refn stating his own cinematic motto. His penchant for meticulously orchestrated tableaus, soaked in a neon wash and void of emotion, have never felt so vivid or appropriate as in The Neon Demon’s world of plastic faces and fluctuating fashions. His latest incomparable, sumptuous effort is a toxic and intoxicating piece of filmmaking that will haunt your dreams and nightmares.
After focusing on violent men for his last three films, Refn has turned his sights to the fairer sex. Despite his shift away from implosive drivers and sword wielding Karaoke lovers, Refn hasn’t mellowed his indulgence in the depraved side of humanity. Like a lamb naively wandering into the lion’s den, Jessie (Elle Fanning) heads to Los Angeles in search of a career in modelling. The film’s audacious opening shot shows Jessie, adorned in a blue dress, bleeding out from the neck over a cream sofa. The wallpaper shimmers golden and the floor reflects a murky mix of purple haze and blood. Nothing moves but for the fleeting flash of a camera snapping photos. The camera slowly pans out on this beautifully draped corpse to reveal a fashion photoshoot taking place. The gruesome façade fades and we see Jessie as the sacrificial lamb, her soul sold to the omnipresent Neon Demon for the price of a pretty picture. Much like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and The Wrestler, The Neon Demon is a descent into the artistic pursuit of perfection. Success hinges on sacrifice, or even martyrdom, and Jessie has paid the ultimate price – her very being. This striking matching of the brutal and the beautiful perfectly encapsulates the duality at the heart of Refn’s vision.
Much like Only God Forgives and Drive, Jessie’s journey into the seedy underbelly of superficial glamour unravels in a series of precisely measured mesmeric scenes. Not a hair, pearl or sequin dares slip out of place in Refn’s uncompromising vision. So carefully choreographed are the scenes that often it feels like we’re watching a series of installations rather than a fully-fledged moving image. For many, this slow methodical approach, entirely focused on aesthetics, will be an infuriating turn off. However, if you are willing to embrace Refn’s style in all its glory then The Neon Demon is a hypnotic whirlwind. There’s an intrinsic sense of anticipation as every new sequence unfolds with increasingly bizarre unpredictability. After a mysterious presence appears in Jessie’s motel room, Keanu Reeve’s manager, Hank, is left to smash the door in to find the intruder. The rush of tension builds purely off Refn’s ability to flick deliriously between reality and the surreal. Like David Lynch, there’s such a rush of pleasure and adrenaline from being unable to second guess the film’s course.
At its most awe inspiring moments The Neon Demon is capable of inducing a hypnotic state, never more so than during an abstract state of transformation for Jessie. Darkness envelopes the screen as a glowing triangle of light beckons Jessie forward in a moment eerily reminiscent of Under the Skin’s alien encounters. Cliff Martinez, the mastermind behind Drive’s cultish soundtrack, once again unleashes a pulsating deluge of synths to accompany Refn’s fabulous imagery. The combination produces something utterly beguiling, attacking all the sense head on, that’s so rarely felt on screen these days.
Behind the glitz and glamour hides some deceptively clever narrative work. While the film is a clear attack on the shallow and quite literally vampiric nature of fashion, Refn explores this theme through his own subtle arrangements. Scenes often playout in the presence of mirrors which act as omnipresent reminders of our own insecurities and judging gazes. While the approval and envy of others is the sole focus of the film’s characters, the ultimate judge is the insatiable critic lurking inside us all that manifests itself in these constant reflections.
Insecurities bubble to the surface from the presence of the perfect Jessie, especially in the archetypal model types Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), but quite what’s so alluring about her remains elusive. With her pale skin, puny body and elven face she is nothing more than ordinary, but in a world attached to reality by the thin sinew off a dress, her natural beauty is the Holy Grail. Jessie realises her worth and soon grows into her role as the prized possession of the industry, however she remains answerable to men. All the men of the film desire her, both sexually and professionally, but her own worth only exists in relation to them. Without the male gaze Jessie is nothing. While Refn has centred his film on women, he’s wholly aware of the power arrangements at play in not just fashion, but the world as whole.
Refn’s nuance and restraint eventually paves way for pure provocation. Gore, violence, sex flood the last twenty minutes of the film, culminating in an outrageous liaison involving a corpse. While the scene certainly serves a purpose, bluntly illustrating the desire for approval and role of fantasy, it’s far too deliberately controversial to come off as anything but self-indulgent. I’ve always felt Refn, for all his technical mastery – he is an auteur in the truest sense of the word – has real issues closing films. The Neon Demon, like Drive’s oddly flat finale, lumbers along without a clear purpose or end goal. The narrative elements of his films have always played second fiddle to the aesthetics, and this becomes glaringly apparent as the ideas beyond shock wear thin on the final catwalk.
The beauty of The Neon Demon, and Refn as a whole, is the way in which uses purely cinematic means to cultivate an atmosphere and embody a sense of being. We’re plunged evocatively into the barren, but irresistible world of fashion and through Jessie we experience its violent corrupting nature. Little dialogue may be said, and for that reason it’s hard to praise the acting extensively, but we certainly feel the claustrophia, paranoia and madness of the industry closing in on Jessie’s naïve charms. Much like how Only God Forgives took us into a mind filled with dread and Bronson showed us the inner pantomime of Tom Hardy’s character, The Neon Demon lures us in a trance like state to witness Jessie’s Repulsion style unravelling. You may not like Refn, but he is unquestionably one of the most imitable, uncompromising directors working today. Vapid, shallow, ultra-competitive, beautiful, provocative, degrading, stunning, glamourous, amusing, stylized; The Neon Demon is all of the above and more.
8.5/10 – Neon Gold