There’s a certain irony in seeing Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn tackle the fashion industry head on. His films are driven by their singular aesthetic and, according to his critics, betray an obsession with style over substance, stirring visuals and sonics to mask thematic or narrative weaknesses.
In The Neon Demon he finds himself similarly drawn towards the sensory, individual moments of audiovisual pushing aside such petty concerns as narrative consistency or thematic coherence. But when those moments are this stunning, colour and sound used to such visceral effect, grotesquery and beauty cast hand in hand, it’s easy to get sucked in regardless.
Elle Fanning is Jesse, a teenage aspiring model who transports herself to L.A., living out of a sleazy motel as she tries to work her way into the industry. Winding Refn has no interest in showing us a young model fighting the odds to make it though — instead Jesse is immediately heralded a sensation by all those she meets. That doesn’t do her many favors with a pair of jealous rivals (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote), who become increasingly obsessed with what Jesse has — and they lack.
On Winding Refn’s view, there seem to be two main strands to our obsession with beauty. First there’s the sense that it should be natural, effortless, free from surgeries or products. You either have it or you don’t. Then there’s youth, because even if you have it, you can lose it. That’s prominent in Jesse’s relationship with her older rivals, but perhaps even more potent in the domineering motel manager (played as deadpan as ever by Keanu Reeves), as he leeringly describes a 13-year-old tenant as “real Lolita shit.”
Colour and lighting take on just as prominent a role as they did in Drive and Only God Forgives, Winding Refn exploring an L.A. bathed in fluorescent blue and red, the ruby shades slowly dominating as the film arcs towards its inevitable bloody end. Cliff Martinez is back on score duties, this time pushing a pulsating tone, the deep sound of a nightclub you’re not cool enough to get into, occasionally giving way to effervescent twinkling tones. It all comes together at the film’s midpoint as Jesse walks the runway for the first time. As neon prisms emerge out of the inky blackness, blinding us even to the rhythmic camera flashes, the score drives Jesse forwards — first tentative, nervous, before she seems to fall in love with her own image, simultaneously recognising her power over others while falling under it herself.
If Drive boasted a slight narrative, and Only God Forgives essentially none at all, The Neon Demon offers a curious compromise: at first it builds several strands, all serving a clear focus, before abandoning some and accelerating others in the rush to its climax and protracted denouement. The result is that while Winding Refn’s thematic goals are clear by the film’s conclusion, the narrative path to them is not. Charitably, it might seem Lynchian, but mostly it feels jarring and incomplete.
That final act stumble isn’t enough to detract from The Neon Demon’s considerable achievements though. It’s perhaps the finest example yet of Winding Refn’s astonishing aesthetic, a whirl of lights and pulsing notes that seems perfectly in tune with its subject matter. The film starts with beauty and along the way finds space within it for the truly grotesque, leaving the audience to wonder how distinct the two ever really are.
Words by Dominic Preston