These days cinema is lacking in provocateurs that aren’t afraid to stir things up and polarize audiences with bold, distinctive films. Sure, Lars Von Trier is still around, but he isn’t as prolific as he used to be and Gaspar Noe is a mainstay on the international festival circuit but where is the younger generation of filmmakers willing to challenge the status quo? Leading the charge is Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn whose 2008 film Bronson established his name on the European art house circuit.
It was Drive (2011), starring Ryan Gosling, that introduced Refn to an even wider audience and it became a commercial and critical darling. The filmmaker struggled with his newfound notoriety, making the visually stunning yet narratively muddled Only God Forgives (2013), which divided critics and tanked financially. Undaunted, he regrouped and continued to follow his cinematic obsessions with The Neon Demon (2016), a psychological horror film that fuses the sensibilities of Suspiria (1977) with Black Swan (2010).
Right from the get-go, Refn presents us with a provocative image: a beautiful young woman lying on a sofa, her neck slashed with blood running down her arm and collecting in a pool by her feet. It’s a beautifully ornate yet horrific still life that turns out to be a photo shoot. It is also the image that best encapsulates the film itself.
The model is Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old newly arrived in Los Angeles. She lives by herself in a motel room and soon meets a makeup artist by the name of Ruby (Jena Malone). They go to a party that Refn drenches in purple and navy blues while the bathroom is saturated in fuchsia. At the party, Jesse meets two rival, older models – Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) in a scene that comes across like some sort of female hazing ritual as they interrogate the visibly uncomfortable girl. The rest of The Neon Demon follows Jesse as she navigates the dangerous waters of the L.A. fashion scene through Refn’s distinctive filter.
As with Drive and Only God Forgives, Refn eschews a traditional narrative in favor of mood and atmosphere, using Jesse’s experiences in the fashion world as a jumping off point on which to craft stylish set pieces that expertly marry arresting visuals with a hypnotic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez. For example, there’s a scene where Jesse arrives back at her motel room after a date and spots something in her room. She gets the manager (a shady looking Keanu Reeves as a frightening sexual predator) and his flunky to check it out only to find a mountain lion loose in her room! It makes no logical sense but does add to the overall sense of unease that permeates the film as Jesse always seems to be at the mercy of others.
Elle Fanning has a knack for conveying heartbreaking vulnerability as evident in a scene where Jesse offers an honest assessment about herself: “I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I can’t write. No real talent. But I’m pretty. I can make money off pretty.” It’s a quietly astonishing bit of acting as Jesse is frank about her shortcomings. She has her dreams but doesn’t know how to achieve them. Her first professional shoot starts off worryingly enough as she’s left alone with the photographer (Desmond Harrington) and instructed to take off her clothes in a moment reminiscent of a scene in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) in which Patricia Arquette’s femme fatale does something similar but then the mood becomes hypnotically transcendent as he proceeds to smear gold paint over her body and takes photos. Fanning delivers a fully committed performance as she continues to pick daring and adventurous roles.
Keanu Reeves plays a creepy motel manager that has a truly unnerving moment with Jesse that turns out to be a nightmare but is also real…for another girl next door when he can’t get in to Jesse’s place. It’s a gutsy role for a movie star of Reeve’s stature to take on and he’s nastily effective, providing a real sense of menace. The always-watchable Jena Malone plays a rather enigmatic character that we’re never sure if she’s Jesse’s friend or regards the young girl as a plaything to toy with for reasons known only to her. It gives her performance an unpredictable quality that is exciting to watch, like the disturbing scene between Ruby and a corpse, which is one of the film’s most audacious moments.
The Neon Demon explores how the fashion industry churns through young, thin models, regarding them as nothing more than disposable mannequins to promote their clothes. It presents a cold, unforgiving world where only the strong survive. This is evident in a scene where Sarah is rejected and humiliated in front of her peers when the client prefers the younger, fresh-faced Jesse to her. The model’s reaction is devastating but her subsequent confrontation with Jesse is unnerving.
Martinez’s moody, pulsating synth score that, at times, evokes the 1980s work of Giorgio Moroder and Goblin, by creating a tangible, foreboding mood throughout, compliments Refn’s striking visuals. Martinez’s music achieves a divine vibe in one scene and a disquieting one in another. Adding to the surreal nature of the film is the deliberate, often stilted way the cast delivers their dialogue, which is reminiscent of Lynch.
While The Neon Demon doesn’t say anything new about the fashion industry, it is how Refn tells Jesse’s story that feels fresh, creating his own unique world and populating it with beauty-obsessed grotesques – gorgeous-looking people that are ugly on the inside. By the end, he represents the cutthroat world of fashion literally in a truly upsetting climax.
To that end, some have claimed that The Neon Demon is a misogynistic because of how women are treated in it and yet most of the violence against women is perpetuated by other women. Furthermore, women are objectified by both men and women. One gets the feeling that Refn’s film is commenting more on how women treat each other within the context of the fashion industry. It explores the subtle and not so subtle shifts in power and how this ties into the notions of age and beauty. Older models are constantly looking over their shoulder because there is always some younger, more beautiful model ready to take their place. Refn takes it to the next level by putting this world within the horror genre as rival models literally kill their competition. The last 20 minutes are where Refn either keeps or loses his audience as the film risks slipping into absurd territory in order to make its point but at least he has the courage to go there and that is admirable in and of itself. After the pretentious twaddle that was Only God Forgives, Refn has finally got something to say and does it in a way that feels personal.