Review: The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
By Rhys Tarling
Opaque, beautiful, and finally, depraved, The Neon Demon both captivates and confounds. More than a few critics have accused it of being a case of style over substance, but one could argue that here: its style is the substance. Long stretches of the story is conveyed not through dialogue or incident but through a perfect marriage of sight and sound, making every scene pregnant with meaning and emotion. It is also easily the most visually sumptuous film this year. And combined with an atmosphere of chilly menace that looms over even the most banal of pleasantries these depthless characters exchange, it is also the most oddly compelling, too.
The premise of this borderline experimental work seems conventional enough. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a meek 16 year old aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles in the hopes of making it big. There she happens upon two models who just don’t quite have it (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) and a makeup artist (Jena Malone, who shocks and appalls with an all-timer of a scene in the last act), who become psychotically obsessed with Jesse’s beauty, and will do anything it takes to have what she has.
It’s a beautifully shot film filled with beautiful people and beautiful sounds about the ugliness of the world. The Neon Demon posits that it’s especially ugly if you’re a woman who’s worshipped, and ultimately violently destroyed, for your beauty. I keep thinking about the scene where 16 year old Jesse, in a turquoise dress, slowly dances by herself in the moonlit night, LA in the horizon appearing as merely a vast ocean of twinkling lights. She is simultaneously large and tiny, a paradox that haunts her every moment.
Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, after enchanting film hipsters everywhere with 2011’s synth-pop meditation on masculinity Drive (and then alienating them by taking it to a far more extreme place with 2013’s ultra-violent Only God Forgives), has broached new territory with The Neon Demon. Sure, the artistic vision is the same – troubled sociopaths who can only articulate via an affectless cadence while a textured Cliff Martinez 80s synth score fills in the emotional blanks – but the feel is entirely different. The Neon Demon is unabashedly feminine in its use of colour, glittering music, and pointed refusal to satiate the male gaze despite the plethora of attractive models who fill the screen. Bluntly put, this is the least titillating adult thriller of all time – excruciating scenes of necrophilia, blood baths, and knife-fellatio are the closest to expressions of sexuality here.
Although I think highly of The Neon Demon, it’s not easy to recommend. Some may find it to be a puerile exercise in glamour and violent pornography. Others will likely be put off for different reasons, seeing only a plotless experiment in music and artfully composed scenes. But what can’t be denied is its staying power. It’s transgressive. It’s amazing.