A sumptuous audiovisual odyssey filled with lurid colours, ethereal splendour and sonic spectacle, The Neon Demon is among the most impressive pure-cinematic experiences of the year. We follow the story of ‘Jesse’ (Elle Fanning), a nymph-like and outwardly naïve girl who’s set her sights on a modelling career in the cutthroat fashion world of LA. Her innocence and youth, the industry’s most sought-after currency, immediately attract attention from leery photographers and salivating fashion designers; as well as amorous make-up artist Ruby (Jenna Malone), and two acutely venomous and jealous rivals. They descend on her like a pack of ravenous wolves. The prey-predator relationship is front and centre here (portends such as a lion straying into her motel room attest to the metaphorical dangers in store). Everyone wants to consume her; commercially, sexually, and perhaps even literally. Jesse quickly becomes intoxicated by her easy success and delights in her superiority over her more seasoned peers. The transformative moment when she encounters ‘the Neon Demon’ and emerges a self-obsessed goddess is a spectacular highlight. What follows is a boundary-pushing yet inevitable, and implies a supernatural cycle of endless consumption and renewal. It’s not just another tale of lost innocence; but a cautionary and sordid fairytale fantasy examining how far some will go to maintain their self worth. Some may find the last act jarring, or at the very least a disorienting change in direction.
Elle Fanning embraces both the wide-eyed 'deer in the headlights' persona and the demure goddess she later becomes, and is perfect in her role. Jenna Malone is even better as Ruby; arguably the most complex of the characters; while Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee are striking as ‘last-years models’ Gigi and Sarah (now ancient at 21) who are close to their 'expiry dates'. None of these characters are well-drawn, believable or even human; they are essentially avatars for lust, jealousy, insecurity and fear of irrelevance. The male characters (bar one) are predatory and lacking all empathy; including sleazeball motel owner Hank (Keanu Reeves in an enjoyably scummy role) with only Karl Glusman as Dean (Jesse's would-be boyfriend) offering any humanity or decency. And he's all the more dull because of it.
Winding Refn has created a typically polarising film (notwithstanding Drive) and many who hated Only God Forgives may well balk at this too. There are scenes that some will call 'provocative' or 'gratuitous', and inevitably the film will be labelled shallow or vapid by those who expect something a bit less opaque, dialogue driven and less open to interpretation. I found plenty to invest in however in a film replete with subtext and metaphor, and who's genre isn't easy to pin down. There are shades of Eyes Wide Shut, Mullholland Drive and Black Swan in terms of it's surreal imagery, tone and emphasis on visual storytelling; and also it's vague leaning toward the horror genre (more overt in the final act). It’s not a character study, nor an expose of an exploitative industry (leave that kind of thing to Oscar-contenders). But it is a film that stays in your head and refuses to leave. And that's even before we come to the real stars of the show; Natasha Braier’s rich and gorgeous cinematography; and Cliff Martinez’ stupendous sonic landscape (one of the most astonishing soundtracks of recent years). The resulting combination is a dazzling assault on the senses that shouldn't be missed at the cinema.