Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-stylish The Neon Demon creates unforgettable, sinister images of beauty and horror in the Los Angeles modelling world.
Savage Beautyby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The Neon Demon signals its intentions from the first shot. A bloodied, young blonde model in a metallic blue dress is sprawled on a red sofa with her throat cut. The soundtrack pounds doom-laden electronic music. As the camera pulls back, we see it’s a photo shoot.
But this is a mild shock compared to what’s to come in a film that blurs the borders between reality, dream and fantasy. Beautiful 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning, Trumbo) has come to Los Angeles to become a model and this is her pitch portfolio. Her fresh, natural beauty, angelic blonde curls and air of innocence are like bait to the human predators she meets in the modelling world. She’s not so innocent as she seems, she knows she can make money off her looks, but she’s also not so streetwise as she thinks she is.
Agents (Christina Hendricks), photographers (Desmond Harrington), designers (Alessandro Nivola) –all see instantly that she’s got that indefinable, unique “thing” and are all licking their lips at the thought of exploiting her. That “deer in the headlights” look is what they want, make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who moonlights for a mortician, tells her, as she determinedly befriends her. She takes her to a party so ubercool that it’s scary, where she meets two older, more worldly models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) – both so elongated, groomed, poised and haughty that, as they appraise her with their dead eyes like vampires, they seem less like human beings than walking mannequins. Both are hostile to the newcomer because of the threat they believe she poses to their pole position.
Jesse is staying at a cheap motel in Pasadena, run by violently criminal Keanu Reeves, playing against type. The photographer friend Dean (Karl Glusman) who took her first pictures, and who, despite the theme of the pictures he took, seems to be the only ‘normal’ person she meets, takes her to the hills to look down on the lights of the city at dusk. It seems this is to be her last moment of innocence. Back at the motel, there’s a mountain lion in her room, an animal predator this time, a theme echoed by the stuffed leopards and other wild animals that litter the Hollywood mansion, complete with empty swimming pool, that she flees to, after a horrific long, lingering scene to the sound of breathing and with the use of a knife that may or may not be a dream. Ruby says she is housesitting the property and offers Jesse refuge, but it turns out to be another trap and what happens there sets in motion the violence – and also absurdity – of the ending.
But before we get there, we’re treated to pyrotechnic visual displays of colour – reds and blues both separately or in contrast – as Jesse becomes an overnight sensation and is feted by the fashion world. A photographer orders her to strip and slathers her with gold paint; a fashion designer makes her the closing model of his catwalk show and the screen splinters into red-lit versions of her. People disappear into backgrounds that are a wash of white like 2001: A Space Odyssey while Cliff Martinez’s electronic soundtrack chills like the one that accompanies the Droogs in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. People walk away until they are lost in black that smoothes out the background. As she gets further in, knowing dialogue tells her that beauty isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing. And as she loses her innocence, we see a triumphant smile flicker briefly as she contemplates how she has beaten her rivals, Gigi and Sarah, who turn out to be much more bloodthirsty than she could possibly have imagined.
The Neon Demon is a genuinely mesmerising combination of image and sound. It’s a flashy film where you can’t take your eyes off the screen in case of risking missing some perfectly composed and original shot. Not just the stunningly beautiful scenes of fashion, parties and landscape, even the seedy motel looks as if it’s not quite real with the perspective of its dingy walls. An extreme close-up of part of Jesse’s eye shows this world is all about looking but it hints at something more gruesome to come later, and that’s not just the necrophilia.
We know that modelling is superficial, so apart from mocking that world in a strikingly visceral way, what is Refn (the director of Only God Forgives and Drive) saying here that’s so shocking? Jesse is fresh meat surrounded by carnivors. Some people want to be her and some want to consume her – metaphorically and literally – and what she represents to them. “People would kill to look like me,” she says. This leads slickly and surely to some bizarre cannibalism and a blood-soaked denouement.
The Neon Demon is released on 8 July 2016 in the UK