“I can make money off of pretty,” announces Elle Fanning’s aspiring young model Jesse near the start of The Neon Demon. Although not the film’s mantra (that’s “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” as uttered by Alessandro Nivola’s flamboyantly cruel designer), Jesse’s confidence that her looks will take her all the way is mirrored in the spirit of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest.
Accusing the film of being shallow, as if that’s somehow happened by accident, is missing the point. Refn has created a gorgeous, seductive and hypnotic vision of Los Angeles that draws the viewer in with the same confidence, style and provocation as the fashion industry does.
The director of Drive and Only God Forgives is more than capable of delivering a stunning sensory experience and luxuriates in getting shocked people talking. There are moments in which you can almost hear him giggling; it is most definitely a Nicolas Winding Refn film.
Jesse’s journey sticks fairly closely to the traditional “rise to fame narrative,” as she shakes off her fears and the people who helped her. However, Refn and his co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham are never really interested in letting us get to know her. She’s young, she’s beautiful, and she’s got no family. She’s got to navigate this dangerous territory on her own, but she’s tougher than she looks.
We’re never given any reason to doubt that Jesse can make it to the very top. Every meeting is a success, every shoot a triumph, every artist a giddy recipient of a new muse.
She’s “a diamond in a sea of glass,” but her arrival ruffles the feathers of established models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). The former is on the verge of being yesterday’s news, while the latter has undergone so much cosmetic surgery that she’s been nicknamed The Bionic Woman (which she takes as a compliment).
Only make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone, who steals the film with a superb performance) seems to be interested in Jesse’s well being, but is her attention entirely benign?
There’s not a lot of “benign” here. This being a Refn film, everything is heightened, including cruelty. The early “Who’s she fucking?” barbs of the first meeting of models recall Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, but the film’s vision of the beauty industry is fierce.
An early scene shows Jesse responding rapturously to a faceless figure being dangled in a strobe-lit space and, sure enough, for the photographers and designers, Jesse is something between a marionette, a mannequin and a sex object. The way in which the rest of the world sees her is shown to be either romantically delusional, in the case of her “not really” boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman), or dangerously lascivious, in the case of her pervy motel manager (Keanu Reeves). And, as the film keeps reminding us, she’s only 16.
While we have this cold, brutal and unsettling themes at play, Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier do incredible work bringing this world to life, stranding Jesse in light and dark spaces before introducing pulsing neon colour and drawing the inevitable comparisons with Mario Bava and David Lynch. Completed by Cliff Martinez’s amazing score, it’s a glorious treat for the senses, as you’d expect from a film about this subject matter.
There’s also a rich seam of dark humour at play here that goes beyond Refn enjoying showing you something disgusting, aided by a game and knowing cast. The horror is mostly confined to the final act but when it hits, it hits hard.
It’s a little overlong, and a lot of viewers may find themselves feeling a little queasy for several reasons, but this is a powerful cinematic experience that Refn fans should absolutely treat themselves to.