The Neon Demon is the latest film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for his stylish yet extremely gritty thriller Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Far from his other works, The Neon Demon focusses on the dark side of the fashion and modelling industry and its effect on women.
Elle Fanning stars as the youthful and naturally beautiful Jesse, a 16-year-old girl who has recently moved to LA to pursue a career in modelling after the death of her parents.
Our first view of Jesse is her entering the cut-throat world of fashion with a very literal metaphor – being photographed with her throat slit open and bleeding out. She is then signed to a top agency where she is rewarded with a test shoot with a big-time photographer who is instantly taken by her. The women around her, all of whom are older, are envious of her natural beauty and youthfulness, and become jealous of her ease of movement through the difficult fashion industry. Everybody wants her and no one else can live up to her. This theme builds and builds until the shocking third act where everything is flipped on its head and envy quickly becomes wrath.
First and foremost, Refn has a penchant for producing the glossiest of films which are like no other. The colour schemes he uses are always precise and particular, bright yet gloomy simultaneously and indicative of the scenario he is depicting. The editing is concise and succinct, with an excellent score from Cliff Martinez (who has worked on all Refn’s latest and biggest films) to run parallel. His films are always visually perfect.
Unlike The Neon Demon’s predecessor, Only God Forgives, there is more of an obvious story arc present here. Where Only God Forgives was too arty for its own good, The Neon Demon tones it down just enough to make it work. Refn weaves in the abstract scenes to the main storyline with ease and it flows. The surrealism is mostly confined to the scenes involving photoshoots or a fashion show, which allows Refn to really utilise his skills in creating weird and wonderful spectacles for the audience. They are puzzling yet pleasing and provide a strange kind of respite from the sharp presence of Gigi and Sarah, the envious older models who are competing for the spotlight with Jesse.
The use of Elle Fanning for this film provides an unsettling realism despite the abstract nature of it. We all know the blurred lines involved with young models and the things they promote, and also the problems with portraying beauty in younger girls for the purpose of advertising. Fanning herself would have been barely 18 years old upon filming and some of the scenes she performs, we feel, purposefully push those boundaries to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and almost guilty for gazing upon her.
Also, the portrayal of almost all the male characters border along the paedophilic. Keanu Reeves’ character, Hank, is the most open and doesn’t care what others think of his sexual desires. The photographer Jack, played by Desmond Harrington, is almost like a Terry Richardson figure – exploiting Jesse’s youthful naivety to produce sexual campaigns for his work, not knowing she is in fact underage (as she is forced to lie about it) and using his position of power to touch her inappropriately so he can cover her naked body head to toe in gold paint.
Fanning is the true star of the movie, as herself and as the character. She carries it completely and truly exerts herself, able to move swiftly between her naïve persona and her stark fashion alter ego, all with a certain vulnerability that makes us always feel protective of her.
The film’s focus on beauty is a marked display of the shallow nature of Hollywood and the fashion industry. One notable quote from the film is “beauty isn’t everything, it is the only thing”. It represents the upsetting lengths that women will go to become beautiful, not for themselves but for others. One character, Gigi, played by Bella Heathcote, has undergone almost every cosmetic surgery procedure there is so she can become the perfect model, despite her so-called ‘old’ age. She went through the gruelling process of having her ears pinned back for the sole purpose of being able to wear her hair in a ponytail without being criticised. Whereas some may criticise the film for glamorising this sort of behaviour in young women, we believe it really digs deep into the darkness behind this lifestyle and the finale certainly proves it.
One thing that must be mentioned in this review is the shocking nature of its final act. This film was first viewed at Cannes and wasn’t initially perceived particularly well, in fact it was grossly panned, with critics and others reacting in disgust. As time went on and more people could see it there were more positive opinions, but some really couldn’t see past the foul ending – especially as there is no indication of what is to come during the leisurely progression of the story.
The Neon Demon eventually becomes a love it or hate it film, and it is not for the faint hearted. Without trying to give away too many spoilers, but allowing a warning to those unaware of the film’s contents, strong nudity, cannibalism and necrophilia are brought into it, and not subtly either. How does Winding Refn manage to bring these themes into a story of the fashion industry? We’ll leave you to find that out yourself.
We give The Neon Demon 4 stars for its beauty and originality, but encourage you to err on the side of caution if you are not willing to watch with an open mind – or aren’t one for the truly horrific.
Take a look at the trailer below, and you can order ‘The Neon Demon’ on DVD here.