The new film from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn begs to be looked at, which is appropriate for a thriller centered on the world of fashion. As one would expect of a Danish filmmaker who cares less about character development than aesthetics, which here alternate from minimalism to excess with a quick flash of colour, his latest is garnering jeers and cheers at equal measure from cultural critics. At its Cannes world premiere, an audience member yelled the F word at the director’s wife at the moment her name appeared before the credits. (The film is dedicated to her.) But division is expected with a film that so unnervingly charts its own sadistic path, with a story that can be best summed up as a familiar showbiz tale. Here, the style doesn’t trounce the substance: the style is the substance.
The Neon Demon (Rating: A-) focuses on 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning), an orphaned runaway from Georgia who has her sights on becoming Hollywood’s next top model. Her pale skin and gentle voice bring to mind old stories of ingénues searching for stardom, but Fanning’s performance constantly hints at something darker. Jesse is quiet and petite, looking not too dissimilar from the virginal princess Fanning embodied for Disney’s Maleficent two summers ago, but there is poise in her stance and an assuredness in her voice. (Other critics have complained about Jesse’s sharp shift from innocence to experience, although a second viewing of Refn’s film highlighted the character’s subtle command from the very first scene.)
In that opening scene, Jesse is dressed as a scream queen, reclining on a couch; her arms, neck and torso are painted red, transforming her into a woman whose throat had been slit. While washing the (fake) blood from her arms, she encounters Ruby (Jean Malone), a makeup artist who introduces the new arrival to town and vows to protect her from ulterior motives of the men who control the business. Jesse’s natural purity also horrifies her competition, models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who make the most of their pithy one-liners. They still boast about their looks, even as they turn an envious eye toward Jesse, afraid of the jobs the new girl will snatch from them.
Jesse’s ascent quickens once she signs with a top agency. In this pointed sequence, Christina Hendricks – who played Fanning’s mother in the overlooked Ginger and Rosa – sizzles as the agent, nonchalantly explaining that Jesse will have to say she is 19 to get gigs. (“18 is too on-the-nose,” she quips.) The young woman also moves up after drawing the attention of photographer Jack (a steely Desmond Harrington) and a debonair fashion designer (the scene-stealing Alessandro Nivola). But Jesse’s quick rise only makes her a bigger target for the industry professionals who see the teenager as fresh meat.
Los Angeles, as expressed through Refn’s lens, is unmistakably abstract. Most of The Neon Demon takes place in vast, empty spaces, from the cavernous, colourless warehouses used for fashion shoots to the vacant lot of the Pasadena motel where Jesse dodges the sniffs of the rascally owner (played to peak perversion by Keanu Reeves). The lack of bodies and movement throughout the cityscape further emphasizes Jesse’s increasing power over her domain. A scene with boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman, from Gaspar Noé’s Love) plants Jesse in focus against a blurry city backdrop at night, suggesting her reign over the town. In that moment, a full moon glimmers from off to the side, nudging the story toward its horror influences.
Those nods to the genre are pronounced throughout. The predatory nature of the fashion industry is a motif that winds its way into the dialogue, written by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. (In one early scene with the models, where they chat about lipstick colours, Ruby asks whether or not Jesse is “food or sex.”) A sharp change from more vampire-inspired stories is the inordinate number of times the characters are seen looking into mirrors. The Neon Demon also wavers between the male and female gaze, although this balance exists because monstrousness lurks within characters from both genders.
But Refn’s thriller isn’t much of a scream, due to deliberate pacing. The filmmaker unpredictably steers us into dream sequences and prolonged moments of soul-searching as characters stare in the aforementioned mirrors. While there is little plot, there is much character information being unpeeled in these extended sequences, accentuated by terrific performances. Fanning is perfectly cast, able to provide both the strength and vulnerability Jesse relies upon to navigate the industry. In one hypnotic sequence, done from a realm of fantasy, a trip down a runway brings Jesse face-to-face with a sinister-looking alter ego, bathed in bright red; here, the two halves of the women, sharply deviating at first, start to blend together. (In that scene especially, the actor’s dark stare evokes a young Jodie Foster.) Jena Malone is also very good in a small part. A scene of graphic sexuality involving her character, which will make some audience members squirm, begins as shocking and morbid, although Malone offers Ruby some tragic grace notes that gives the act more purpose.
The performances ground what is, for the most part, an audiovisual masterpiece. Cliff Martinez’s icy ambient score, creeping to different volumes and twinkling in an increasingly disorienting way, complements the unsettling depiction of show business. One could describe the sharp high notes of the music similarly to how one character labels Jesse: as “a diamond in a sea of glass.” As photographed by Natasha Braier (The Rover), every scene looks perfect – even too perfect, apt for exposing the artificiality of the pictures for which the characters pose. With its saturated excess and intricate musical score, this is a film that deserves a big screen.
The Neon Demon is hypnotic and, despite its lack of plot, overwhelmingly opulent. Those that lament the film’s close adherence to two subgenres – the vampire film, the backstage drama – do not give the screenwriters enough credit for mixing the two together. Some of the symbolism here is obvious, but there is also something exhilarating in the way Refn ties together numerous genre-centric visual cues. (Some of the dialogue, meanwhile is consciously trashy and on-the-nose: subtlety is not Refn’s strength, nor should it be.) While the film skewers its subject with delicious abandon, there is something enchanting about the glossy, glittered-up visual sense. Just try taking your eyes off of it.