Denmark/France/US | 2016 | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Logline: After an aspiring young model arrives in Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by several beauty-obsessed women who are determined to get what she has.
Beauty may only be skin deep, but the dedicated must get to the flesh underneath in order to taste success. In Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest endeavour he has pulled apart the beauty myth with the claws of a cougar, and laid bare the throbbing heart of jealousy and spite. The Neon Demon is a feminine fable of murderous ambition fashioned as mischief and desire, and draped in the pulsating palette of a giallo. As “NWR” he has concocted a cinematic scent as rich and ripe as the stench of sex and death. Not surprisingly it is his most polarising movie to date.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a sixteen-year-old, fresh-faced in the City of Angels, with a portfolio shot by keen Dean (Karl Glusman, from Gaspar Noe’s Love). The pics are amateur hour to the modelling agency head (Christina Hendricks), but Jesse's naiveté and je ne sais quoi still impresses enough to warrant a shoot with surly photographer whizz Jack (Desmond Harrington), meanwhile makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) befriends her and takes the ingénue to a flash party where statuesque models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) take an instant indifference. That soon becomes dislike, and then the loathing is intensified when Jesse begins moving swiftly through the ranks, leaving Sarah and Gigi frothing in rage.
“They say women are more likely to buy a lipstick if it's named after food or sex. Just think about it. Black honey, plum passion, peachy keen.”
Jesse is seduced by her tinsel dreams and wakes into a bewitching nightmare.
Diana is the goddess of the hunt, of the moon, a giant eye watching in the night sky. Countess Bathory murdered dozens of nubile girls and bathed in their blood in order to stay young and beautiful. The perpetual mythology of vampirism, the dark magic of cannibalism, the eating of one’s enemies in order to consume their strength, the hunger for vitality in the fickle world of modeling. A city that eats its young, a city, not of angels, but of witches and demons.
Refn has loaded his movie full of symbolism, but also abstraction and mystery. Like Lynch he’s less interested in trying to provide easy answers or simple meanings, and is more concerned and intrigued by cinema as a powerful vessel for sensory experience lost in an emotional wilderness. The manipulation of the ego is high on the agenda, as is sacrifice and humiliation. It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world out there, as cruel and grotesque as it is beautiful and absurd.
Much of The Neon Demon’s extraordinary effect comes from Natasha Braier’s stunning cinematography and Cliff Martinez’s elegiac, electronic score. The title sequence alone is mesmerising, but Martinez delivers a career best with his retro synth-laden soundtrack reminiscent of Vangelis’s score for Blade Runner, the sweeping, melancholy work of Jean-Michel Jarre, and the pulsating edge of Giorgio Moroder. When I think of images from the film I’m immediately soaked by the gorgeous chillwave of Martinez’s music.
The four female leads; Fanning, Malone, Lee, and Heathcote, all deliver superbly. I’ve always been a fan of Malone’s work, but I must single out Lee here, as she expertly captures that hypnotic combination of immaculate beauty and haunted, desolate intent. Curious to note that both Lee and Heathcote are Australians. Keanu Reeves plays a mean-spirited, unsavoury motel manager, and while his narrative thread seems a little superfluous, in the bigger picture he plays his part to the hilt. The red herring that turns blue. Reeves makes me chuckle, you can spot him in a movie a mile away from the way he walks, like Frankenstein’s Monster, but he gives a solid performance here. Also of note, although uncredited, is Alessandro Nivola, as a fashion designer who thinks Jesse is the perfect specimen. He complains about plastic surgery, but insists that “beauty isn’t everything, its the only thing.” Much to the chagrin of Gigi, standing there, humiliated, feeling like a bionic woman who’s just had her cyborgian strength zapped.
There will be blood.
The Neon Demon is a lush and pristine dream, pierced by the jagged shards of a black magick nightmare. A bittersweet sensation that fills the mouth like hard candy, coated with the viscous coppery taste of blood. You might gag, you might swallow. The ripe Eurotastic taste is an acquired one, and if you savour it, the deep trash lure and allure has worked a charm, and like Lynch, the oneiric qualities have caressed your sensibilities and pulled you over into the triangular abyss.
So, are you sex or food?