A teen model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), bounces on a diving board above an empty pool, musing on beauty overlooking the cityscape of Los Angeles in The Neon Demon. She’s hovering over the deep end but the layering of this shot suggests she’s set to plummet into the shallows of professional modelling in Hollywood. The Neon Demon, co-written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, tackles vanity and superficiality with the heavy hand of a body-positive commercial parodying the industry but there’s a ferocity to it that feels like you’re getting mauled by a diamond encrusted hyena.
Co-writers, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, are hitting an easy target by submerging the ethereal Jesse into a shallow world most associated with egotism, but there’s a viciousness to The Neon Demon where passive aggression gives way to psychotic outbursts with the pop of a lipstick. Characters are ready to go mad for their slice of success while others thrive in the sludge of exploitation flowing through the city of lost angels. For a film that’s light on subtly it’s hard to believe they didn’t call Fanning’s character ‘Angelica’ instead.
Refn’s commercial sensibilities are on show in The Neon Demon (Refn has made commercials for Gucci, Lincoln and Hennessy) so there’s a chance he’s turning the mirror on his previous employers. The aesthetics of high fashion suit Refn’s infiltration of this world while he slowly reveals the grotesque; he imitates and then manipulates every single moment to twisted perfection. The colour wheel gets a spin across hallucinatory montages while Cliff Martinez’s score throbs as it has done in previous collaborations with Refn on Only God Forgives and Drive; the trilogy of synth is complete.
Style dominates The Neon Demon but Refn, Laws and Stenham keep only a few secrets, again: fashion modelling as a conduit for vacuous behaviour requires a dose of vitamin duh; or it may be too obvious for some. There’s still enough intrigue in the plot to keep it moving but the shackles of subtext are broken in the opening minutes — Refn has rarely been a subtle filmmaker, his credit in the opening titles seems bigger than the name of the film and his initials appear several times before it has properly started. There’s revelry in this kind of extravagance that transfers to the film’s decadence for beauty and trash captured magnificently by cinematographer, Natasha Braier. When Braier fuses these elements the results are unsettling, such as a shot of a group of models waiting in only their underwear and high heels to audition for a male fashion designer; as supposed icons of pure beauty they look unnatural to the point where unease creeps into the frame. The further Jesse gets in her career, the seedier it gets, yet Braier and Refn keep pushing the visuals to decadent extremes while sinister intentions await.
The Neon Demon gives fangs to high fashion. It’s a stunning descent into the madness of narcissism and self-preservation even when it’s stating the bleeding obvious.
Cam Williams - Follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW