“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” The words belong to the film’s seedy fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola), but they could just as easily be describing THE NEON DEMON in all of its meticulously orchestrated glory. It’s unquestionably a case of style over substance in filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s eleventh feature as a director, but that becomes its own weighty currency when the style is as impeccable as this. After all, what better approach to a film that explores the dangers of beauty in one of the most superficial industries in Los Angeles.
Hollywood and the City of Angels has always been fascinated with its own ability to act as a harmful siren, from A Star Is Born to Mulholland Drive. Yet like many explorers in America’s history, here the very young Jesse (Elle Fanning) emerges like a mythical creature in the West, and is rapidly drawn into the fashion world. In a pristinely shot piece of foreboding, Jesse is introduced covered in faux blood, before revealing that her glassy eyed stare is that of an aspiring model and not of a corpse. Taken under the wing of make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), and introduced to models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), Jesse’s star rises as photographers and designers alike become intoxicated by her beauty.
As a straight examination of our culture’s obsession with beauty, THE NEON DEMON would probably not offer much in the way of new insight. On that level, the film works at its most familiar, albeit one with particularly unexpected comeuppances for the genre. Refn and co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham infuse their ambiguous morality tale with numerous horror elements, and whether they are real or imagined is up to the viewer. Are the Lynchian flashing neon triangles Jesse keeps seeing part of a fashion campaign or in her head? Are the increasingly sinister visitors to her motel room (including a wonderfully gross Keanu Reeves) simply imagination manifested? This is all against Showgirls levels of comedy as well, albeit far more intentional thanks to the biting superficiality of Sarah and Gigi, and a delightfully sleazy Nivola as a profoundly shallow fashion icon. More simply, there are times when THE NEON DEMON is just plain nuts.
Every element seen and heard is calculated to perpetuate this disconcerting feeling, and indeed there is nothing that Refn, cinematographer Natasha Braier and composer Cliff Martinez didn’t place carefully for us. Like the fashion industry itself, it mines the past for current trends: the old-school titles feel Hitchockian, even if that jars with Martinez’s thumping modern soundtrack, and this in turn conjures up Federico Fellini and Dario Argento in its mix of psychological horror and modern Gothic. Yet it’s all so conscious that we must question what we are seeing constantly. While Jesse maintains that “nothing happened” during a closed set with photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington), the visuals might lead us elsewhere. Taking place entirely in an empty white space, the photographer and model look like the are floating in Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck short, which might lead us to question whether Jesse has mentally suppressed reality to write her own narrative from this point.
The same is true of the cast themselves, from Malone’s perfectly symmetrical hair to Fanning’s wide-eyed innocence. As our perception of their intentions shifts and our allegiances change, we doubt how much we know. Jesse’s past is obscured, but so is the enigmatic Ruby’s, who has a second job as a mortuary beautician that is never given unnecessary explanations. Only Heathcote’s Gigi is honest about how manufactured her beauty is, and as the film slips into its radically grotesque final act of proper horror, she is the only one to (flippantly) speak the truth. Perhaps this is the point in the end, with even the most terrible truths seeming manufactured in an artificial world. THE NEON DEMON shows that there might be something more beneath the surface when it comes to beauty, but when it looks this gorgeous, it really is the only thing that counts.
THE NEON DEMON is playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival 28 July – 14 August 2016.
2016 | France, US, Denmark | DIR: Nicolas Winding Refn | WRITER: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham | CAST: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves | RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes | DISTRIBUTOR: MIFF (AUS) | RATING: ★★★★★