'Neon Demon' a Deliciously Sordid Strut

The Neon Demon
(USA, 117 min.)
Dir. Nicholas Winding Refn, Writ. Nicholas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves.
Elle Fanning stars in The Neon Demon

Nicholas Winding Refn scores a rebound with The Neon Demon. Following the repugnant bloodbath of Only God Forgives, the enfant terrible of fluorescent Eurotrash art cinema cruises closer to the speed of Drive with The Neon Demon. The Neon Demon is a deliciously sordid strut down the runway right into the stiletto-heeled underbelly of consumer culture.

The Neon Demon, hitting the theatres fresh from a Cannes premiere with reports of applause and jeers alike for its ‘jaw-dropping depravity,’ is a hypnotically vacuous study of a culture that eats young women alive. Methodically paced and devilishly stylised, The Neon Demon is bound to elicit a love-it-or-hate-it response for pushing the envelope so far. If high fashion is all about risks, then Neon Demon cuts with abandon.

Elle Fanning sashays into the spotlight as Jesse, an aspiring model who seems poised to be the next hot young thing in the Los Angeles fashion scene. Fanning slays the role with her gutsiest and trickiest performance yet. She has killer confidence as Neon Demon tasks her with striking a pose with a mix of virginal innocence and turbo-charged sex appeal.

Jesse’s shades of inexperience and naïveté are exactly what make her appealing to the power players on the scene. She signs with a top agent named Jan (Christina Hendricks in a memorable cameo) who loves her look and doesn’t bat an eye when she learns that Jesse’s only 16. “Just say you’re 19,” Jan advises Jesse. “18’s too obvious.”

Yes, Jesse’s in way over her head in high heels and haute couture. But if Jan’s eagerness to put a minor in the big league seems sleazy, Jesse’s first shoot is skin-crawlingly creepy. The photographer (Desmond Harrington) sees the same youthful promise and illicit sex appeal in Jesse the minute she walks onto the set in her fancy make-up and well-worn sneakers. He closes the stage, forces her to strip, and proceeds to slather her in gold body paint. His hands caress her body, violating her privacy while covering her up and ultimately empowering her with ominously gold glitter. High on paint fumes and the promise of fame, Jesse transforms into a pro and becomes a spawn of the very culture that wants to eat her.

The Neon Demon seduces like a runway model with its cold self-assurance, sleek poise, and alluring palette. The vivid colours of the film pop off the screen like a hallucinogenic haze as the intoxicating cinematography by Natasha Braier envelopes the viewer in the entrancing façade of the fashion world. The pinks, blues, purples, and reds of Neon Demon are so bright, so gaudy, and so outrageously artificial that Refn firmly puts Jesse in a surrealist allegoryland, like a rabbit hole through which Alice stumbles. Visually, Neon Demon offers some of the best work that Refn has ever done. The grotesque yet dazzling sights of the film recreate the ambitious headspace Jesse needs to exceed her competition. It creates a high akin to the drive for fame that fuels her even if she knows it will be her downfall. The excellent score by Cliff Martinez is dark and haunting. It’s a driving, throbbing pulse that propels the film into the belly of the beast as Jesse enters a very, very strange empire with chic designs and ghoulish frenemies lining her way to the sacrificial altar.

The chic, catty rivals that Jesse encounters in her pursuit of the runway are an equally hungry and fascinating bunch. There’s Ruby (Jena Malone), the peculiar and homely make-up artist who takes a motherly interest in Jesse when she sees the small town girl with dreams of stardom rivals dangerously close to the fashion scene predators. The few fleeting glimpses of humanity one sees in The Neon Demon arise in Malone’s earnest turn as one of the only people who initially appears to be uncorrupted by the spell of the spotlight. Her protective and genuine concern for Jesse guides the film through its unsettling dark turn and makes the final cuts deeper and more ghastly.

The Neon Demon gives Ruby a pair of Tweedledee and Tweedledum sidekicks in the form of the glamorous plastics Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). The former is a hilariously brainless twit with every inch of her blonde body nipped and tucked to perfection. Heathcote gives one of those wonderful performances that steal absolutely every frame of the film in which it appears. She’s also the most sympathetic figure in the film because she’s such an obvious victim to the vapidity and superficiality of consumer culture: it’s eaten her from the inside out, leaving a beautiful surface with nothing inside. Sarah, on the other hand, is rotten to the core. A frigid ice queen with a distinct high-calibre beauty that contrasts with Jesse’s sweet innocence, Sarah’s a wicked force: empty, driven, and all consuming.

Refn perilously treads the line of misogyny, but he balances the satire with a very fine line of dark humour. The film rejects any pretense to realism with its synthetic trimmings and the director, along with two female co-writers, wraps Jesse’s dream in a biting critique of self-obsession and the consumer culture that makes victims of the young women who sacrifice their bodies and lives for the beast.  The film manages this teetering act by reigning in much of the sex and violence that acts as Refn’s calling card in his previous works. This lurid, sexy, arty pop-art pulp often plays like the kind of work to which Brian De Palma aspires, but often relegates to the gutter.

Refn shows admirable restraint, especially in realising the violations Jesse encounters on her rise. Her stripped and golden photoshoot, for example, hides the nakedness of Fanning’s body and instead trains the camera on her flushed face and the hands of the man who gilds her skin. The effect is one of greater defilement than nudity could offer and the creepiness is two-fold in putting the burden of imagining the act upon the audience. Just when it seems as if Refn has fully sobered up, though, The Neon Demon climaxes in a riotously foul nightmare that includes both cannibalism and necrophilia. This film is not for the squeamish. But even when The Neon Demon regurgitates the atrocious deed that becomes Jesse’s fate, it chews up what it spits out without smattering any blood on its pristine surface. How elegant, how restrained, how outrageous, and how horrifying it is.

The Neon Demon opens in Canada beginning June 24 from D Films.