The Neon Demon is to modelling what Requiem for a Dream is to heroin. It seduces you with visions that are equal parts urban grit and starry ambition, then delivers a punch-in-the-gut verdict, summarily, “Hey, kids, drugs are all fun and games until you get your arm sawn off.”
In a similarly brutal fashion, Elle Fanning’s character in The Neon Demon makes being beautiful for a living look effortlessly rewarding, until events take a truly nightmarish turn for the worse.
Fanning’s Jessie, an innocent who moves to LA shortly after her 16th birthday to chase her dream of being a model, lends an ethereal quality to an otherwise coldly stylised film. While her descent into narcissism isn’t wholly convincing, her organic attraction is. Apparently, she was the only person director Nicolas Winding Refn ever wanted for the role and, as a viewer, you can’t help being sucked in by her wide-eyed purity. For most of the film, she resembles a fawn that’s been dipped headfirst in glitter.
Refn shot to fame after 2011’s cult mob thriller Drive, but his subsequent effort, Only God Forgives, was harder to love. The Neon Demon sits somewhere in the middle in terms of mainstream appeal; its subject-matter is pure showbiz, but its aesthetic is abstract with a visceral edge. Essentially, it’s a series of static glamour shots, like flipping through a cinema-sized copy of Vogue, interspersed with frenetic club scenes in dark rooms lit up with blinding strobes like a thousand paparazzi bulbs going off at once.
Refn’s soundtracks are as distinctive as his visual style. Composer Cliff Martinez is on top form again here; his minimalist electronica for Drive swaggered with 80s synth cool, whereas Demon’s pulsing, other-worldly soundtrack is better suited to an alien fetish rave in a basement in Berlin.
There are some delightful bit parts, too, from Keanu Reeves as a sleazy motel manager, to Christina Hendricks as a scathing modelling agent (“Now, I would never say you’re fat – but some people might”). In fact, the film is packed with biting one-liners, particularly on the fetishisation of women’s bodies and youth, but some are undoubtedly crushed under the weight of Refn’s ego. Demon has all the makings of a depraved satire, but has none of the self-awareness needed to actually make its audience laugh.
The pacing’s slightly off, too, dissipating in the middle, but thankfully it picks up for a full throttle finale, packing in murder, necrophilia and cannibalism in the space of 20 minutes.
If you’re expecting Refn’s masterpiece, this isn’t it. But if you’re in the market for a devilishly depraved deconstruction of the fashion industry, this is one hell of a ride.