Laura Sproule, Contributor
Sixteen year old Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of becoming a model. With the help of make-up artist Ruby (Jenna Malone) she soon becomes the darling of the fashion world. Her beauty and youth inspire jealousy amongst other models (Bella Heathcote, Abby Lee) whilst her single-minded ambition pushes those around her to the brink.
In a commentary on the vapid and superficial nature of the fashion industry, Refn’s The Neon Demon is an even more extreme example of high style than 2013’s gruesome Only God Forgives (a film which many would say only God could forgive). Quirky, bright and baffling there is as little going on in this plot as behind the eyes of the models presented. Yet this slowly paced film is a provocative, darkly funny piece of cinema, its stylistic features designed to draw the mind towards the inner mechanics of the unforgiving ‘dog eat dog’ modelling business, and the obsession of the world at large with outer appearance.
The plot is a familiar one. A young, breathtakingly beautiful girl comes to the city of angels; doe eyed and determined to realise her dreams. As she becomes ingratiated in the fashion world her fresh and natural beauty propels her to the top. Inevitably she transforms, both as a result of the sphere in which she finds herself and the fact that character development is a key concern in any Refn project. However, this director does not adhere to the norm, and brings the cut-throat tendencies of fashion to the very literal and visual fore. The bright, dazzling colour palette associated with any Refn piece are present and the score is quite simply excellent. The ambiance created is unsettling and hypnotic. You don’t want to become invested, but you also cannot look away. The first half of the film is slow, the second absolutely crazy. The tension builds so gradually that it seems to appear all at once but upon reflection one realises that the path of the film is inevitable. The characters are such that you root for and slightly detest them simultaneously, a feat in which few directors would be successful.
Fanning gives her usual ‘deer caught in headlights’ performance, but in the gritty and gruesome setting of Neon Demon her acting prowess is allowed to shine. She commands the screen even during, albeit brief, appearances of veteran actors Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves. Supporting actors Malone, Heathcote and Lee are also wonderful as their characters delve further into the metaphorical and literal cannibalism of the world they inhibit.
It is a film in which nothing happens, but the visuals possess an exquisitely hellish quality that mean even if one is bored, one is bored beautifully. It has divided critics across the board but it is undeniably a masterpiece, although not everyone may appreciate it. Try as one might to resist its allure it speaks quietly to a world in which “beauty isn’t everything, it is the only thing.”