The Neon Demon

2016 – UK, France, Denmark, USA

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Bella Heathcote, Keanu Reeves, Karl Glusman

Words: N. Scatcherd

Nicolas Winding Refn’s vivid, neon-stained visual sensibilities and fetishistic eye for beauty are a perfect fit for the glitzy, glamorous, but ultimately cut-throat world of modelling. Sex and violence are two major preoccupations of Refn’s, and both are viewed with the eye of a voyeur; he seems to be indicating that beauty, no matter how perverse, can be found in both.

His precisely-composed shots make every frame feel like an art installation, but there is not so much a dominance of style over substance as there is an effective melding of the two. There’s a weird subversive pleasure in watching this movie which, visually, often has the style of a Dior advert or something similar, only with some genuine threat and tension building under the surface from the first scene, and just filling up the whole thing until it descends into nightmarish giallo horror.

Its depiction of (specifically) young, female beauty, and the subsequent powers and traps that come with being beautiful, could be read in a couple of different ways depending purely on the spectator’s point of view – it seems to both celebrate narcissism and warn of its dangers (occasionally with a pitch black sense of humour), and is bound to repulse some for being ‘too violent’ or ‘too artsy’. Some have accused it of being misogynistic, which I would disagree with, but surely it’s a testament to the film’s power that it can inspire such polarised reactions.

Sixteen year old Jesse (Fanning) is an aspiring model who comes out to Los Angeles and is immediately swept up in the intensely competitive world of modelling, wherein every physical feature is coldly analysed (Refn’s camera finds a body-horror style fascination with exposed flesh, and one scene – featuring a terrifying Keanu Reeves as a predatory motel owner – is one of the most intense scenes I can remember sitting through in a while, melding sex and violence together in a way which is profoundly uncomfortable and difficult to forget).

Fittingly, The Neon Demon is a film composed of extreme images, although the performances are generally excellent. Refn has spoken of his interest in the theme of transformation in his films, and that can certainly be seen in Jesse’s emergence from frail, new-girl nervousness into a young woman who is greatly aware of her pull on those around her, as her fellow models begin to obsessively crave the perceived ‘it factor’ Jesse possesses.  Jena Malone stands out as the make-up artist who takes Jesse under her wing, with her own obsession with the young girl ramping up steadily until the film’s incredibly intense third act.

The Neon Demon is further proof of Refn’s interest in zigging rather than zagging (moving from such low-budget, street-level crime films as the Pusher trilogy, through to the coked-up pantomime insanity of Bronson; the mystic Viking road movie Valhalla Rising; the cult hit Drive to the much more divisive, elliptical, almost wordless Thai revenge thriller Only God Forgives; the man doesn’t seem to like repeating himself). This may well be one of his strongest, boldest films and it deserves to be experienced – love it or hate it, it will certainly leave an impression long after you’ve seen it.