(Originally published 1 August 2016)
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a beautiful young model trying to make it in Los Angeles. Befriending a make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), she is soon caught up in the glamourous world of modelling. However, as her career continues to grow, she becomes the object of obsession by many and envy of Ruby’s friends Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote).
The Neon Demon is the latest film of colour-kaleidoscope-and-80s-music-bent maverick Nicolas Winding Refn. His penchant for sleazy but stylised fare is on full force here, as from the opening frame after the credits you are transported into an uncaring and transcendent world.
From thereon out, it’s a setting of images and false grandiosity lead by the naïve but confident Jesse. While her characterisation can be a bit flat in places, it’s Elle Fanning that truly lifts up the lead into something noteworthy. Jesse is inexperienced but not stupid, ambitious but not greedy, a woman cannibalised by the industry she wants to take a part in, but entirely of her own doing. Her character does her purpose admirably as she takes on a dark but enticing reality.
Refn’s usual penchant for coloured lighting and cinematography is here again, but is more muted compared to Only God Forgives. If there’s one thing no one can deny about The Neon Demon, it’s absolutely stunning. Lighting and shot framing is used perfectly to capture the symmetrical beauty and ugliness of the narrative, and not a single shot fails to land. While the occasional camera glare can be irritating, it never takes away just how much work went into making the shots gorgeous.
What may lose people is the story, as it’s a pretty straightforward ‘innocence seduced’ tale with a pretty dark turn I won’t go into. Honestly, I think the lack of narrative weight really works here. The focus is on society’s obsession with beauty and the narcissistic need to consume and own it, even when it’s from other people. It’s a really modern and uncomfortable take on the topic, and it gets across what it needs to pretty well. Jesse is an object of desire from everybody in the film, even herself in a way, to the point where people almost react irrationally to it. The lengths this goes to…well, go and see it to find out.
The Neon Demon is a brilliantly realised and executed outing from Refn. It’s stylish, insightful, shocking, gross, dark, bright, and everything you could want from an exploitation tribute from a masterful filmmaker. While it certainly isn’t for everyone, and the ending does drag out a tad, it’s one of the best films of the year and well worth the look see. A true beauty that hides true horror underneath.