The opening shot of Nicolas Winding Refn’s dreamlike tenth feature The Neon Demon sees Elle Fanning as rosy-cheeked model Jesse draped in macabre glory on a sofa, her throat apparently slit. Blood spools onto the floor as a photographer stares on, snapping away, Jesse’s eyes vacant. There’s a lush, albeit gruesome glory to the shot, made humorous as she climbs from the Gothic sofa and wipes away the fake blood asking for reassurance about how she did. Jesse has recently arrived alone in LA. She’s young and ambitious, with aspirations of making it as a model, acutely aware of the power of her God-given beauty.
Jesse meets with fashion booker Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), who instantly recognises her potential. As Jesse’s career takes off, the models – who parade themselves like brides of Dracula – quickly turn on her and begin to plot her downfall. The Neon Demon is the first time that Refn has used a female lead, departing from his typical macho themes of modern masculinity found in Drive and Only God Forgives. Everything here is Thanos and Eros. The film is constantly trapped between the push-and-pull of the beauty of life and the decay of time and death. The world he establishes is a dramatic contrast of polished beauty, the grime of downtown LA and the horror of the industry. It’s as if it’s a cinematic experiment created by a modern-day Dorian Gray, constantly asking what is beauty, and what happens when it’s commodified?
Like Refn’s previous features, The Neon Demon demonstrates his highly stylised aesthetic and gift for establishing atmosphere, pouring his fetishes on-screen into a contemporary fairy tale. He focuses on the phosphorous glow of Los Angeles, inky night shots allowing for the dramatic contrast of light. In the day, beautiful creatures navigate rooms with stark white walls, accompanied by the sonic delights of Cliff Martinez’s electro soundtrack. To compare The Neon Demon to a glossy perfume advertisement would be simplistic, but there’s little doubt that he’s aping the composition and style for his own purposes.
As satire, the commentary may be thin, but Refn’s concerns have never lain in that arena. He takes the world of fashion and exaggerates and expands, using it as a backdrop for his macabre yarn. After all, what better environment could there be for Refn than this to explore his fascination with beauty? Naysayers will claim this is yet another example of the director’s ongoing style-over-substance approach – it’s a difficult accusation to challenge. And yet, with The Neon Demon, Refn has all but perfected his craft, so superior is it to what has come before. To quote Alessandro Nivola’s lecherous designer, “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
Joe Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh