Review: The Neon Demon – An uncompromising take on the ugliness of beauty

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I NEVER thought I’d be able to take The Neon Demon seriously. It’s a film (ostensibly) about fashion in a post-Zoolander world, which helped personify and expose the vapid absurdity of an entire industry. A story about a young, aspiring model venturing to L.A. to make a career out of looking pretty sounds both cliched and ripe for satire, and it would be easy to dismiss the film out-of-hand on a surface level.

But this is a Nicholas Winding Refn film, and we’re going to have to go balls deep. If you’ve seen All About Eve, you’ll know exactly where this plot is going, but the crux and purpose of The Neon Demon neither begins nor ends with its narrative. The story of Jesse (Elle Fanning) becoming embroiled in a murky underworld of beauty, sleaze and passive aggression is fine by itself, but it’s the cinematography and virtuosity on show that’s truly captivating.

Unlike Refn’s last film, Only God Forgives, where the style of the film was so overwhelming it became impossible to concentrate on the actual content, the style of The Neon Demon comes much more naturally. The ultimate superficiality of Refn’s elan blends perfectly with the superficiality of the L.A. model scene that the film is, purportedly, about. It’s an inspired combination of meaninglessness that serves to bolster the remote, glacial atmosphere of the film as a whole.

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The women are doll-like – statuesque objects to look at – and conversation plays out in clipped, sterile soundbites; you can almost feel the chill in the elongated pauses between words, as fashionistas stare each other down in neon-tinged dressing rooms and swanky restaurants. The self-regard of the fashion industry bleeds into the set design; there are so many mirrors and mirrored images on display that the viewer becomes almost subconsciously aware of and instinctively drawn towards them. We’re implicitly invited to partake in the narcissism, and we have no choice in the matter; one shot looks perfectly normal, only for the camera to pan out to reveal – you guessed it – a mirror.

The atmosphere is one of clinical dread. The gliding synths and pulsating techno beats of the soundtrack are grimly electronic, and even the brief moments of intimacy between Jesse and love interest Dean (Karl Glusman) – including a Malick magic-hour shot along the L.A. skyline – seem mechanical, their dialogue bearing the same hopeless, desolate anti-romance seen in Blade Runner.

The oppressive neon of the Thailand in Only God Forgives transposes into the intrusive neon of the L.A. glitterati. The film’s opening minutes are clothed almost entirely in neon, and the harshness of the colours throughout make the scenes look angular and intimidating. Refn even seems to be taking cues from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, especially in the moment where Jesse is left alone, naked, on an endless stream of white backdrop in a photographer’s studio. She looks as if she’s about to be devoured.

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Elle Fanning gives a great performance here as Jesse, the starry-eyed naif who gradually transforms to reflect her surroundings. We’re uncomfortably close to her during most scenes, invited to pore over her in near-voyeuristic fashion. Bella Heathcote’s turn as Gigi, a jealous, more experienced model peer, is deliciously catty, her snipes and passive aggression rolling off her tongue with relish. Keanu Reeves also pops up, almost unrecognisable as a sleazy, aggressive motel owner, and he’s so far beyond his norm that he doesn’t even seem like the same man. His voice is scuzzier than ever, and the menace of his screen presence is sublime. Jena Malone also provides fine support as the scorned, creepily-perky Ruby, a make-up artist who works a day-shift in a morgue.

But, of course, it’s Nicholas Winding Refn, so the performances ultimately take second billing. For all of Fanning’s ability, the cinematography – the indelible Refn style – is the star on this catwalk, and it’s beautiful and unnerving in equal measure. The extensive use of slow-motion, aside from stretching out the runtime by at least half an hour, allows Refn to linger for uncomfortable lengths of time on shots, letting us soak in the striking power and lavish detail of his imagery, whether it’s a strobe-lit bondage show or a blood-red, Suspiria-evoking catwalk.

Sometimes, the deliberacy of the blocking makes the actual context of the scene unintentionally hilarious, like when Jesse is standing on a diving board above an empty swimming pool and Ruby stands in the pool, for some reason. This was only done to create a striking shot, and the artificiality of such framing sometimes proves to be taxing, especially as the film winds down to its inevitable – yet still surprising – climax.

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But there’s another benefit to these artificially extended moments. It’s Cliff Martinez, and his ability to craft multiple levels of aural tone, piling glittery synths and rattling basses into the score, ever ratcheting up the sense of dread. It’s, appropriately, grimly beautiful, and his music punctuates the beats between dialogue and perfectly complements the precision of the editing. It’s another superb addition to a fantastic partnership.

The contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque, whether visual or aural, is constant. Here, beauty is a mask; unnatural shadows lurk on the walls in almost Expressionist fashion (ha!), and the Stepford stillness of the models belies the ugliness beneath. It’s an easy metaphor, but rarely has it been fulfilled with such flair. Every movement, every facial expression, every lighting change is so slow and painstakingly deliberate that they beg for our attention, and we find ourselves analysing every frame for a deeper meaning that will, likely as not, elude us.

All told, The Neon Demon isn’t one to watch if you’re looking for novel satire or revelations from the darkest depths of the fashion industry. The simplicity of its narrative belies the depth of its visual power and the uncompromising darkness of Refn’s vision. It’s already proved to be a polarising sit, but it’s certainly worth the time of any auteur-watcher. For my money, it’s Malick done right.

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