From the moment that The Neon Demon’s opening credits kick in, flaunting its throbbingly sinister electro instrumental over a shifting visual parade of garish glitter and hot fluorescent text, you can tell this isn’t going to be your average movie. After all, its director simply doesn’t do average. Drive, Only God Forgives, and Bronson are just a few of the films that sit among the works of Nicolas Winding Refn, a man whose directing work more or less exists as an on-going dedication to the provocative. His films can fascinate as much as they can alienate, and this latest offering, a visceral allegory on the vapidness of the fashion industry and the sadistic cut-throat culture that drives it, refuses to buck that trend. Unsurprisingly for a movie that places a blood-red lens on catwalks and come-and-go ‘it’ girls, it also puts a focus on the importance of image over substance. But it is the dissection of this importance that takes center stage - if at least, said dissection were allowed the same grisly direction as one would approach a cadaver in an abattoir. Whether or not your own taste for creepy movies will involve overly-symbolic tales of wide-eyed young supermodels becoming seduced - and betrayed - by beauty itself, The Neon Demon makes for a memorably disturbing experience, and succeeds as a nauseatingly good chiller in its own right.
Neon Demon begins plausibly enough, depicting its opening half with the tale of Jesse (Elle Fanning), the aforementioned wide-eyed young hopeful of the piece, who has come to Los Angeles in a bid to land a career as a model. She soon gets acquainted with Dean (Karl Glusman), an amateur photographer whose knack for the art - along with the talents of makeup expert Ruby (Jena Malone) - results in a photoshoot depicting Jesse as a murder victim, reclined and ‘bleeding’ profusely over a love seat. It is a shoot with jarringly glamorous results, and it impresses Ruby enough for her to take Jesse under her wing and land the young sixteen-year-old (who is later told to only give her age as nineteen) some further work.
Naturally, getting further work involves attending exclusive parties and mingling with other models, and it is Ruby’s industry darlings with whom Jesse gets introduced to first. Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), both elite models, size up Jesse as soon as she’s offered up to them, and promptly treat her with the masked disdain that comes with such a threat to their competition. They know that Jesse is beautiful - even more than the pair of them - and in the world of fashion, the flawless new is always waiting in the shadows to replace the tired old. As a nameless fashion designer succinctly puts it halfway through the movie - “Beauty is not everything, it is the only thing” - it doesn’t take long for it to dawn on the pair of them that they’ve just been introduced to the ‘only thing’ that could take their place at the pinnacle of the industry. Disgusted and terrified by the mere suggestion that their covergirl days are numbered, the pair observe, with increasing malice, the rise within their world that Jesse begins to undertake.
To say that Jesse’s rise is meteoric is also a massive understatement. She is barely done with her inaugural rendezvous with fashion’s finest before she is summoned to a photoshoot with high-ranking photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington), a man of few words and terrifying presence, who immediately forces her into a naked body-paint shoot. The shoot goes far beyond any boundaries Jesse was expecting to cross, but the results, just like her first shoot, are similarly amazing. Feeling empowered, and subtly intoxicated, by her new-discovered standing in this world of glamour, she then goes on to an audition for a major fashion event and, competing with Sarah, immediately wins a place on it - much to the frenzied chagrin of her rival, who fails.
It seems that whatever milestone on the road to the top that Jesse strives for, she gets without effort, and for a girl who was already self-aware of her own looks, both her reputation and her increasing self-importance continue to be pushed to stratospheric levels as she ascends to the prestigious status of fashion show headliner. But perfect beauty, as she also knows herself, is dangerous. Not only has it stirred the psychotic hatred of her peers, but also the desires of men as well - both Dean, who is both infatuated and helpless to prevent her descent into narcissism, and Hank (played by Keanu Reeves with convincingly unnerving agitation), the disquieting owner of the motel that Jesse has set up in. With everybody wanting a piece of Jesse, it’s hard for her to separate friend from foe - and even harder still, when the very thing trying to kill her is the very perfection that she’s becoming to assume.
Derivation is thus the core of Neon Demon’s initial set up - beauty worship, obsession and the delusion of ego aren’t exactly themes that a countless plethora of arthouse movies haven’t done before. So close does Neon Demon’s first half cannibalize from this palette that its many moments of ponderous introspection, mixed with long shots of characters taking ages to say absolutely nothing, begin to feel like a pastiche parody of the entire Cannes film scene, let alone a fashion week in Paris. This treading of familiar ground also seems to creep into the acting of some of the main characters as well - Fanning initially plays out Jesse with just a little too much sugar-coated naivety for a girl fully aware of her own prettiness, and both Heathcote and Lee, who as Gigi and Sarah have definitely been set up to be the Ugly Sisters of this indie-art Cinderella, only seem to pout and say standardly catty things while Jena Malone’s Ruby - undoubtedly the most fascinating character throughout - pushes them towards murderous intent with every breadcrumb she offers them on Jesse’s career explosion. But despite how well Malone conveys Ruby’s ambiguous status as both Jesse’s friend, mentor and manipulator, the rest of Neon Demon’s cast are found wanting for a real sense of depth, meaning that the film is reliant on other factors to make it engrossing enough to keep one’s eyeballs on it.
Ever the manipulator himself though, Winding Refn has a good number of gambits to play. First of all, Neon Demon, quite intentionally, looks fabulous. It might just be the best-looking film of 2016 from an artistic viewpoint, and rather than just using all this visual imagery to merely impress, the astute direction presents and weaves it in such a manner that it adds some much-needed seasoning to the plot. One great example is the early scene of Ruby bringing Jesse, and Jesse’s future rivals, together at an industry party - a black-lit function thumping with techno music that culminates in a contortionist show. This show, a fantastic visual crescendo of the contortionist posing under strobe lighting (with Jesse and Ruby watching, captivated), is the first of Neon Demon’s many symbolic statements. The contortionist, seemingly being restrained into their poses, transforms themselves into visages of almost Francis Bacon-esque proportions under the flashing lights as the girls look on: body imitating meat, meat imitating art. It’s obvious satire for the fashion industry as a whole, but it is nonetheless brilliantly executed, particularly thanks to it being backed by Cliff Martinez’s lusciously decadent soundtrack. When the parade of dark electronic bliss that Martinez has provided for the movie combines with the imagery on show, Neon Demon shines with the dazzling light of its title. The employment of image to critique the dangers of image consistently wins out despite some patronizing moments, painting a mesmerising, unsettling canvas while never stifling the comprehensiveness of the plot as a whole.
Stylistics alone cannot save a movie from being boring however. Winding Refn therefore deserves credit for rescuing what could have ended up a vogue, soulless 117 minutes by ensuring Neon Demon’s second half delivers a gut punch bewildering enough to justify its early meanderings. Jesse’s Black Swan-esque transformation during her catwalk success from starstruck dreamer to pureborn fashion goddess, predictable as it is, still provides a shock to the system as it is simply so stunning to watch (and Fanning deserves kudos for pulling it off too). But it’s only the precursor to a climax of turbulent, disturbing scenes that sew up the loose ends of her ascent to the apex of vanity, and bring the consequences of her new-found conceitedness back to roost. To reveal what such a bloody, disturbing and downright bizarre closing chapter has in store would also be to ruin the very reason to see the movie - it carries the movie’s main message after all. But it is a pulverizing, unforgettable sequence of both psychological and visual shocks, carried splendidly by the unholy trinity of Lee, Heathcote and Malone, whose own transformations in the movie’s blood-red climax ensure it unfolds with monstrous impact. Thanks to their second half contributions, Neon Demon is able to cement its place as not just an effective critique on the baseless worship of beauty, but also as an essential cult movie in the years to come.
Ultimately though, the deciding factor on if you’ll find Winding Refn’s gore-punctuated parable of the fashion world enjoyable hinges on how well you can stomach its failings. This is a film that starts out visually gorgeous, but narratively shallow and inane (and who knows, maybe that’s an intention given its subject matter). In a metamorphosis akin to what its characters undergo, it inexplicably ends up being a solidly-acted, chilling horror flick whose visual offerings of both the immaculate and the barbaric will stay in the memory long after its end - whether you have the eye for them or not.