“I believe there’s a 16-year old girl in every man,” Nicolas Winding Refn told Entertainment Weekly of his latest film, The Neon Demon. The auteur also said he was inspired by The Valley of the Dolls, the beauty of his wife, the work he had done on some advertising campaigns and the vision of a 16 year old girl coming to Los Angeles.
Reading through Refn’s interview after watching The Neon Demon, it’s as if his inner 16 year old and hodgepodge of visions leapt straight from the auteur’s subconscious and onto the screen. There’s beauty in every frame of the film, whether we’re staring at Elle Fanning’s face, the gorgeous clothes and makeup or some abstract shot filled with lurid lighting. There’s also horror, gratuitous violence, sex, blood and cannibalism. While it all sounds exciting and looks great, none of it makes much sense by the time the credits start to roll.
Jesse (Fanning) is 16 years old and seemingly straight off the bus from some small town. She’s a model, though she opts for loose sun dresses with her naturally messy hair, Converse sneakers, flip flops and almost no makeup on. This is a stark contrast from the glamazons that friendly make up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) introduces her to; Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) are blonde, icy and picturesque. Their hair is straightened, holding themselves as if everyone is watching them and dressed in chic clothing. “Is that your real nose?” Gigi flatly asks Jesse upon meeting her (she’s serious). Referring to herself as “The Bionic Woman,” Gigi is proud to list off her plastic surgery routines as practically as a stay at home mom might recite her grocery list.
But Jesse has something that the other girls want, something that is magnetic and almost other worldly. “She’s got… that thing,” Ruby says as if under a spell. It’s something that convinces the hard as nails head of an important agency (played perfectly by Christina Hendricks) to sign Jessie immediately. It attracts the attention of a handsome love interest (Karl Glausman), a sleazy hotel manager (Keanu Reeves) and a top fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola). I’m talking, of course, about innocence a.k.a. virginity.
Refn shoots Fanning as the ethereal goddess everyone paints her to be. She floats from scene to scene, sometimes wordlessly, seemingly unaware of her own talent. There’s one scene that’s actually really gross (for obvious reasons) where Nivola’s character looks at Jesse as if she’s an appetizer waiting to be devoured, and while it’s a scene clearly being played for laughs (LOL she’s 16 and he’s older!), there’s no humor in an underaged girl being looked at like a meal by a grown man, especially as she’s standing there in her underwear, and especially because claims of sexual harassment (and much worse) have been echoed by many models. Besides the fact that men are absolutely disgusting, we’re never told why top name photographers and designers are tripping over themselves to work with her besides the fact that yes, men are gross and every character in the film is telling us she’s “it.”
But that’s all unimportant apparently, because after awhile Refn has visibly grown tired of exploring the vain and hollow world of fashion and modeling and has moved on to making a horror film. There’s a truly brilliant dream sequence featuring Fanning, Reeves and a knife that had me and the journalists I sat in the screening with on the edges of out seat. It recalls the tense motel scene standoff from Drive, and I’m actually still thinking about it. The scene is so strong, that if Refn had just stuck to a straight path instead of veering off into several other plots, The Neon Demon could have been something truly special.
Alas, he just can’t get out of his own way here; he never took the time to streamline the laundry list of inspirations into an actual plot. There are a few early scenes suggesting that Jessie is being watched or stalked, but those are never explained. In fact, the film’s final third recalls a much lesser version of the excellent Mila Kunis/Natalie Portman dynamic from Black Swan, with much less explanation and technical mastery. Without giving anything away I will say that those with weak stomachs may have issues with the film’s final moments. There’s also a scene featuring Malone and a corpse that… well, let’s just say she is a dedicated actress.
Fanning has proven her capabilities as an actress before, giving Oscar worthy turns in Super 8 and the underrated Ginger & Rosa. Here, however, she’s mainly a cipher for Refn’s inner 16 year old which doesn’t offer a lot for the young actress in terms of characterization, save for an unexplained personality shift towards the end (was her innocence an act? Does she even care? Does Refn?). But she is without a doubt one of the most magnetic young actresses working today; even when I wanted to stop watching, I couldn’t, largely in part to her screen presence. The rest of the cast does their best, with Hendricks making the most of her very small cameo. Had she been used more, the film could have turned into a scathing examination of the fashion industry. The biting dialogue she delivers is akin to Emma Watson’s A+ narcissistically self-aware delivery in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. But again, it’s almost as if Refn is standing in the way of his own project’s potential. There are large chunks of the film where things happen for almost no reason, and sure they’re pretty, but at the film’s end I was left wondering “Why did any of that happen?”
“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” Nivola’s fashion designer character says in a flat and silly monologue halfway through the film. He may have been talking about the industry, but he also could have been talking about The Neon Demon, and that’s not a compliment by any means.