The Neon Demon – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Nicolas Windig Refn
Starring Elle Fanning, Jen Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks
You may not have noticed this, but fashion is a superficial industry. Fortunately, Nicolas Winding Refn is hip to its covert manipulations, and in his latest ready-made “provocation”, The Neon Demon, he’s ready to tell the world that – hold the front page! – becoming a supermodel may not be the healthiest of aspirations.
The film’s wittiest touch comes at the start, as Refn’s initials appear beneath the opening titles in a play on the Yves Saint Laurent brand. From there on, it’s two hours of straight visual and narrative cliché, as mysterious ingénue Jessie (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA, only to find herself orbited by two sinister cover girls (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote), while a concerned-but-overfamiliar make-up artist (Jena Malone) hovers on the periphery. An enormous amount is made of the idea that Fanning’s natural beauty is somehow irresistible to the synthetic appetites of the LA fashion industry, which means that The Neon Demon plays, to a certain extent, as a kind-of-sort-of quasi-vampire film.
Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s underseen Starry Eyes (2014) spins a pleasingly infernal story out of similar material, scoring more tension that Refn does from a slow, slow build to an explosion of bloody violence. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), meanwhile, digs viscerally – and humanely – into the core of jealous fury that Refn takes as read, but never explores in any meaningful way. The Neon Demon is one of those awkward combinations of style and sanctimony, wringing a parade of erotic/horrific images from an idée fixe without ever acknowledging that it is at least as smirkingly exploitative as the subject of its critique. Everybody knows the fashion industry humiliates the starry-eyed in the name of beauty; maybe somebody needs to make a film about an arch-stylist who degrades the beautiful in the name of art house credibility.
For all this, The Neon Demon is not unentertaining. Elle Fanning isn’t exactly doing much acting, but that’s never been a barrier to being compelling on screen. She has a nice little half-smile that periodically crosses her lips, suggesting Jessie’s babyish naivety may be more disingenuous than we suspect. Jena Malone, too, has a couple of pleasingly witchy moments. In a film where everybody else has exactly one thing to play, Fanning and Malone stand out by virtue of having one-and-a-half. Still, one has to look no further than Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin (2013) to find a riveting performance of blank inscrutability that makes the doll-like posturing of The Neon Demon seem very campy indeed.
Speaking of camp, praise heaven for Christina Hendricks – her single scene is a hoot, and she comes very close to stealing the film with a finger-point. Keanu Reeves is admirably cast against type as a sleazy motel owner, but the part ends up being less fun than it looks like it might be. Lee and Heathcote, both intriguing performers in their own right, make for fairly dull monster-mannequins. Lee, at least, taps effectively into the kind of sulky stasis that Refn habitually mistakes for charisma; but Heathcote is at sea, particularly in the latter stretches (and the film does stretch on, being at least 20 minutes too long).
Whether The Neon Demon will pick up the same devoted following that embraced Drive and largely rejected the underrated Only God Forgives is hard to call. The film’s banal message about the evils of the beauty industry suggests that Refn is attempting at least some kind of populist statement, although it’s doubtful whether anybody outside that industry would be gullible enough to feel vindicated by a “commentary” consisting almost entirely of leggy women in vampish poses. At the same time, there’s a certain adolescent allure to The Neon Demon’s consistent nastiness that at least goes down easier than Drive’s tacky melange of ultraviolence and naff sentimentality (although there’s plenty of naff stuff here, not least the majority of the fashions themselves). Also, if there are people left in the world who hasn’t tired of the triangle as a meaningless signifier of occult intrigue, The Neon Demon will send them into paroxysms.
For all the “image-making” on display, it’s interesting that the most purely pleasurable component of The Neon Demon – as with Drive – is the musical score, again by Cliff Martinez. It’s a poison chalice of throbbing synthesizers that gives propulsion to Refn’s frequently static filmmaking, fulfilling at least the aural component of the Kubrick-meets-Carpenter aesthetic that the director seems to be aiming for. It’s a shock when the end credits unfurl under a typically windy Sia power-ballad, but that’s The Neon Demon all over – it casts a sulphurous glare at the superficiality of fashion, but it can’t tell haute couture from Topshop.
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