Sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of being a model. Encouraged by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) she becomes the It Girl among high-end fashion photographers, her youthful freshness spiking the jealousies of models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). It can only end in tears. Or cannibalism.
It barely seemed possible, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is an even more extreme exercise in high style, ponderous pacing and stomach-churning grue than Only God Forgives. And, unsurprisingly, it became the most divisive film of Cannes 2016, prompting both boos/walk-outs and standing ovations in roughly equal measures. Imagine America’s Next Top Model written by Sofia Coppola and directed by Dario Argento — it’s cool, baffling, darkly funny, super-slow, vapid, stunning to look at, at times tedious and in its last third utterly bat-shit crazy. A cult-y Showgirls afterlife beckons.
Refn isn’t attempting to satirise the modelling world so much as presenting a disfigured view of it.
The story is a simple and familiar tale — an ingenue comes to town, ruffles feathers and incites payback — but Refn turns it into a patience-tester. As Jesse becomes fêted in the fashion world, the first hour is glacial in pace and tone, an endless round of bizarre photo shoots (at various points, Elle Fanning is covered in blood, then burnished in gold paint), walk-offs, nightclub posing and beautiful women being bitchy to each other. If all this sounds like an attack on a culture that is obsessed with the way things look, it isn’t. Refn isn’t attempting to satirise the modelling world so much as presenting a horribly disfigured view of it. The performances are mannered, the dialogue is pause-filled and deliberate, and there isn’t an ounce of interest in either conventional narrative or character development.
What Refn is concerned with is image. The filmmaking on display is stunning, displaying a formal control that makes David Fincher look slap-dash. Like Drive, The Neon Demon is a Los Angeles movie. Every shot is a style- magazine spread at 24fps — all precise tracking shots, mirror metaphors, triangle symbolism and sumptuous images — drenched with dread, sexual threat and hypnotic electro tunes courtesy of Cliff Martinez. Jesse’s motel room (owned by a terrifically creepy Keanu Reeves) plays host to a mountain lion and a terrifying moment with a knife. In any other film this would be the height of the twisted weirdness. In The Neon Demon, it is just the beginning.
For when Jesse, realising the extent of her youthful power, moves out of the motel and into the model’s mansion, the film enters a new zone of madness, vomiting up a finale that’s funnier than all the foreboding promised — the juvenile glee Refn takes here is the closest the film comes to having a genuine feeling. As well as skimming off Argento, Mario Bava and Walerian Borowczyk, it’s a film that seemingly teems with a vast array of influences — Cat People, Heathers, Black Swan and Mulholland Drive come to mind— yet still feels like it it can only come from Refn. For all The Neon Demon challenges, frustrates and drags, it lodges in the memory longer than many so-called ‘better’ films. It’s just a shame its brilliance struts down such a narrow catwalk.
The Neon Demon pulls off the unique feat of being both boring and bravura all at once. Like the world it depicts, it’s a feast for the eyes but little else.