The first half of this post will be a spoiler-free review, however the second half of it will be me deconstructing and analyzing some of the fine points of the film.
Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, is a smorgasbord of decadence, narcissism, and morbidity. Refn channels into his own antagonistic personality to give us this delicious spectacle that leaves it rattling in your head for hours after viewing.
The Neon Demon follows the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning) and her time starting out in the glitzy high end modelling industry in Los Angeles. Other models however envy her and lust and crave over her natural beauty. The Neon Demon is as outlandish as it sounds, but it’s critique of the industry and vanity/narcissism itself makes it another subversive classic by the Danish filmmaker.
This film is very much like an acid trip; it can go either two ways, really well or really badly. I found myself completely on board with the film and because of that I absolutely adore The Neon Demon. It is certainly a film that you cannot get out of your head.
Elle Fanning, Abbey Lee, and Jena Malone were all fantastic as the models they portrayed; there was a great balance of subtle and exaggeration from the cast and it assisted the film’s alien and other-wordly feel. Fanning as the lead of Jesse is obviously the highlight of the film as she dominates both the innocent little girl and the vain, egotistical power woman roles.
Of course with a Refn film you are always expecting the visuals and score to be bold and wonderful. However, The Neon Demon is by far Refn’s most aesthetic film to date. If you loved the striking images from any of his previous ventures you’ll be sure to have a feast with all the crystalline cinematography that certainly makes this film stand out from anything else that touches the cinema screens for a good while. Cliff Martinez delivers his greatest score yet, too. With slight touches of his scores from Drive and Only God Forgives, Martinez creates a mesmerizing and trip inducing soundtrack.
Although the imagery in The Neon Demon is arguably simpler to grasp than those in Only God Forgives, you are at times left wanting more. The structure of the plot is rather thin and there doesn’t seem to be a cohesive path for the narrative. However, once you begin breaking down the images and themes presented in the film, you then discover that maybe a strong point was to not have a conventional plot structure – or any at all.
For those who do not like Only God Forgives, other Refn films, or surreal art pieces (there are touches of Argento and Lynch peppered throughout the film) then I highly doubt you will enjoy this. But I would thoroughly recommend this film to everyone else, it’s one of those films you can really dig your teeth into.
I’m now going to discuss some of the finer points of the film and break it down a bit more, so here is a spoiler warning as I’m going all out.
At a Q&A, Refn was asked about the alien feel of the film, to which the director responded by saying that people will soon think of The Neon Demon as a science fiction film. This to me is a massive point to consider when thinking about the film. From the start we are constantly reminded what type of world we have entered and that this one is not ours. Lines like “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and how beauty is currency, perfectly explain to us what this world is all about.
Our “hero”, Jesse at first appears like she does not belong to this world, she is sweet and innocent and natural. But as we progress through the film we discover that maybe this is not true. Jesse, just like the other models, is part of this world (either she was always part of it or it corrupted her is debatable). The runway scene with the triforce is for me the moment that Jesse unveils her true self. She is confident, powerful, arrogant, and vain. She basks in her natural beauty and prides herself upon it, similarly like the other models but the difference is that it is built up to be true that yes, Jesse is the most beautiful. However, in the end Jesse is (literally) pushed aside, a reminder that in this world woman are tools, objects for the satisfaction of ego. I very much see The Neon Demon as a criticism of vanity.
Mirrors are constantly used in this film, yet never once is there the cliched “fractured face and fractured mirror means fractured personality” even though a mirror is smashed at one point. I noted this as quite significant. If we return back to the otherworldly feel of the film, we must think of the significance of mirrors in this world. Whenever a character is reflected in a mirror we see someone different. In the world the models seem completely vain, heartless, and completely inhuman; however we see their insecurities whenever they are reflected in a mirror. We see someone who looks trapped, consumed and possessed by this world that is devoid of all humility and humanity.
Although this is a different world, we are subtly reminded that this one does actually inhibit our own (or is connected to it). The seedy motel and owner (played by Keanu Reeves) shows that the decrepit nature of this world has overflown into our own. A world full of sexual exploitation and narcissism.
This is where Refn, the crazy antagonistic Danish bastard who loves pissing people off, shines. I’ve already seen this film dubbed as sexist, misogynistic exploitation trash and I’m sure Refn knew that too. Refn fills these shocking and absurd scenes with a clear argument against these said things by exaggerating and making them as explicit as possible. It’s almost like a satire how he criticizes these things by exaggerating them and showing them for what they are.
I would argue that this is a feminist film that makes some very strong arguments about female sexual exploitation and body shaming. This world is built on the foundation of these things and it has created a poisonous world riddled with narcissism and vanity. Refn presents a black mirror to our own world to show us the world of The Neon Demon, and how the nature – no matter how exaggerated it is – has spilled into our own. It may be alien, but it’s not far away.