The films of Nicolas Winding Refn are never less than thought-provoking. His thriller, Drive, had him teetering dangerously close to creating a mainstream hit, while the ‘mad-as-frogs-but-utterly watchable’ Only God Forgives offered a weird mash up of sex, violence and extreme karaoke. In The Neon Demon, Refn takes on the fashion industry and the result might be his most assured effort yet.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a naïve would-be model, newly arrived in the charnel house of Los Angeles haute couture, hoping to carve out some kind of career for herself. In her own estimation, she can’t write, sing or act, she has no talents at all but she is pretty and she can sell that. She is blessed (or possibly cursed) with an innate quality that makes casting directors look favourably upon her, much to the chagrin of others in the industry who only perceive her as a rival. She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ruby (Jena Malone) a makeup artist who services top models in the daylight and attends to the look of the recently deceased by night. Jessie, meanwhile, lives in a sleazy motel operated by the world’s creepiest landlord (Keanu Reeves) but as her star begins to ascend, it looks as though she might just be on the verge of major success…
Refn’s cinematic influences are apparent at a glance. The ‘Gallo’ films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava are referenced in the opulent use of colour and in the pulsing, electronic soundtrack, while the storyline has echoes of traditional fairy tales, particularly Snow White. (The Grimm brothers would surely have approved of the stomach-turning excesses displayed here – cannibalism, necrophilia and voyeurism all rear their unsavoury heads. Be warned, this is not for the faint-hearted.)
With so many potential pitfalls waiting to claim the film, it’s to Refn’s credit that he steers his story so expertly through the rapids. Yes, he seems to be saying, the fashion industry is a vile, sexist construct that feeds upon the objectivism of the female form and ultimately consumes and destroys those who dare to enter into it – and he’s not afraid to show exactly that; and yet, his film never feels gratuitous, never comes across as a case of the director having his cake and eating it. We are appalled by what we’re watching, which is just as it should be.
With its slow, languorous direction and eye-popping visuals, The Neon Demon is a stunning slice of contemporary cinema that will have you discussing its content long after you’ve left the cinema.