The first image we see in The Neon Demon, following a glittery opening credits sequence featuring trance synths, is a shot of Jesse (Elle Fanning) lying on a couch, her throat slit and blood draining down her limp arm. It is a photoshoot, captured by a leery-eyed Dean (Karl Glusman).
Jesse is trying to break out in the modeling business, moving to Los Angeles on a whim and being whisked away into an indulgent world of beauty. This is the simple narrative, a tale of innocence and naivety that we’ve all seen before, yet it is stylized heavily to hint at something expectedly sinister lingering just below the surface.
Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn shoots scenes through mirrors, bouncing angles from frame to frame to capture various figures at once without cluttering the shot. It is an interesting technique that amplifies the superficial conversations being had within the scenes.
These mirrors also tie thematically to the ego of looking at the self and the fabricated reflections of beauty onto the media landscape, although this tie is quite on the nose.
Refn’s usual aesthetic flair is clear from the onset of the film. Contrasting colors, with an emphasis on the glossy neons that the title suggests, demarcate two differing worlds, the one which Jesse is clinging on to and the one that she is heavily courted into. A driving synth score introduces an atmosphere of vibrancy and unease, the feeling of being someplace you know you shouldn’t be yet feeling invigorated by the intrusion. Crystal clear focus and a long depth of field removes any notion of distortion, as the narrative promises to do that on it’s own terms.
Elle Fanning is transfixing in her role, exuding a rare humanity into the callous environment around her character without making it feel overwrought or forced. Jena Malone, too, brings a strong performance, one which increases in quality as the picture progresses.
As stylish as Refn makes The Neon Demon look, it is less ambitious of a narrative endeavor than his previous work. This said, the film presents a twisted vision so lavish and grotesque that it is hard at times to look away. Refn questions sexual impulse by juxtaposing the grotesque with the sexy, just as the sexy is perverted by the narcissism and fabrication of beauty itself. His tale of innocence lost, although formulaic in synopsis, succeeds at being both gritty and dreamlike, biting and inviting.
The Neon Demon is not Refn’s best work to date, but it is another strong addition to the auteur’s filmography. Where Drive is a more tightly crafted all around film, The Neon Demon still preserves a distinct Refn stamp that is hard to shake and always enthralling to behold. Any fan of his previous work will find something to enjoy here.
As always, thanks for reading.
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews.
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)