Review by Eliza Janssen
At around the hour mark of Nicholas Winding Refn’s fourteenth film, a moustachioed fashion designer tells our ingenue protagonist that “beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” The Neon Demon, a psychosexual acid trip into the modelling world’s glimmering heart of darkness, is perfect for anyone who agrees with this statement.
The entire film is violently beautiful, finding something haunting in the bloody glow of “No Vacancy” signs, and something holy in an empty swimming pool at dusk. But for fans of Refn’s work in Drive and the maligned Only God Forgives, this is all pretty typical stuff, and so we are forced to acknowledge that The Neon Demon, aside from being distractingly gorgeous, also has characters, and a plot.
Just like those aforementioned Refn films, The Neon Demon features a terrifically frosty synth score by Cliff Martinez. Definitely recommend it as the soundtrack for driving around late at night somewhere desolate with the high beams on. And it also makes great use of Los Angeles’ most bleak and unfashionable areas, as did Drive. But The Neon Demon would have its audience believe that, because its main characters are, in their own words, a bunch of “dangerous girls”, its perspective is more feminine than Refn’s movies about drug dealers and vikings.
To this I say, eh. Despite all the female acting talent on display, I can’t shake the feeling that Refn ultimately identifies more with the film’s male characters—the designers and photographers who move the girls into their proper places and watch them walk in skyscraper heels and slather them in gold paint, determining their value.
This adherence to the male gaze is, I guess, in alignment with the film’s themes of beauty and objectification, but it’s unsettling nonetheless. Get used to a lot of close-ups of Elle Fanning’s lunar, vacant face.
Elle plays the part of Jesse, a sixteen-year-old small town girl living in a lonely world (hey that rhymes), whose virginal, lily-white looks and innate “It Girl” quality quickly get her signed to a modelling agency, in a disappointingly brief scene with Christina Hendricks. But L.A. is not the sunny, accommodating amusement park that The Red Hot Chilli Peppers have led us to believe it is, and Jesse runs into a coven of more experienced models—girls who look like the backing band in a Robert Palmer video, but more murder-y.
I have to wonder what kind of negative PR this movie is doing for Tourism Australia, thanks to a pair of performances from Aussies Bella Heathcote and Abby Lee as the two carnivorous glamazons. Now we have to add homicidal runway succubi to the list of stuff to warn the rest of the world about, right between Redback Spiders and the Box Jellyfish.
Jesse’s downtime isn’t such a blast, either. The manager of the scummy motel she’s cooped up in (Keanu Reeves) would make Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert wrinkle a nostril in disgust. Jena Malone gives the movie’s bravest performance as a sapphic makeup artist who promises that Jesse can count on her, because “it’s important to have some good girls around.” Then again, she does introduce herself to poor Jesse by telling her that she “has such beautiful skin.” In fact, apart from a naive photographer love interest (Karl Glusman), Jesse is an Alice completely alone in Wonderland, which makes her the perfect prey for the seductive, mesmeric power of the title Demon.
Refn loves to isolate his cast of immaculate paper dolls against backdrops of inky blacks and searing whites, but he’s not afraid to indulge his excessive side either. The film’s second half lurches into dadaist imagery and sequences of icky voyeurism. An end coda involving a regurgitated eyeball goes on for about 20 minutes too long, but it’s revolting splendour would make Alejandro Jodorowsky proud.
There are a lot of flavours which combine to make The Neon Demon the fucked-up fairytale it results in. The good-girl-gone-Hollywood narrative is very familiar stuff, and Fanning is compelling as both the Bambi-esque Jesse who arrives in Los Angeles, and the glossy T-1000 she turns into. Italian giallo horror influences can be felt in Natasha Braier’s lurid cinematography. Then again, there’s also an arch silliness to a lot of the script, which, when coupled with Refn’s tendency to milk as much tension out of a static shot as possible, can result in some unintentional laughs. It certainly did from the Melbourne Film Festival audience, which featured a couple of derisive chuckles, three or four moments of full-throated laughter, and a handful of walkouts from cinema-goers who had seen too much.
So don’t go to The Neon Demon expecting a jolly Tinseltown rising-star fable. Go see it if you’re interested in what it would look like if a high-concept Vogue editorial spread got possessed.