Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham.
Cinematographer: Natasha Braier
Composer: Cliff Martinez
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Jamie Clayton, Karl Glusman, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee.
“What the fuck did we just watch?” That’s what my boyfriend and I said to each other as the credits scrolled at the end of watching The Neon Demon a couple of weeks ago. The fact that it took three screenwriters to write a script with maybe at most five pages of dialogue is also mystifying. What even is this movie? Why does it exist? Why is the cast so famous for what amounts to, at most, cameo appearances with no real reason for showing up in the first place? It just felt like the director really liked American Horror Story: Hotel and thought it would have been better with less dialogue, more confusion, and set in the world of fashion and modeling. The message of this film? Everyone likes pretty and young girls, except those who used to be young and pretty. It’s also hard to tell if the film is provocatively criticizing the modeling world and its sexist, violent, and pedophile-skewing behavior, or if the movie is an endorsement. It exists in a troubling grey area, where it does the very things it may be criticizing or endorsing, leaving a sour taste in the mouth after viewing is complete.
Elle Fanning (Trumbo, Super 8) plays Jesse, a sixteen year old girl recently orphaned who moves to Los Angeles in order to become a fashion model. The minute Jesse arrives in LA she immediately gets signed, books impressive photoshoots with big-named photographers, and even runway shows with top-billed designers. Everyone is drawn to her beauty and her youth, she is a blank canvas upon everyone’s desires, gazes, and fantasies affix themselves. It’s pretty gross, because the camera is asking us as viewers to lust after Jesse just as everyone in the film does – keeping in mind that both the character and the actress playing her are underage at the time of shooting. Jesse is juxtaposed with a trio of hateful mean girls and industry veterans, women who have enjoyed success, but are inching always closer to the point of no return, when their looks are no longer fresh and the industry is readying itself to spit them out. Instead of looking inward or for ways to move on, the women glare and set their hatred on Jesse, who represents what they once were, and no matter what they do (including body modification) what they cannot be ever again: innocent, pure, naturally beautiful, but mostly young. They both hate her and desire her, and Jesse is just there, existing, without even trying she gets everything.
The scopophilic nature of the movie gets to you sometimes. It’s just too much. Nicolas Winding Refn clearly likes the eighties and those saturated neon colors he used throughout the movie Drive and now takes to their inevitable excess. The movie opens with the troubling trend of models asked to look beautiful while also appearing to be dead/murdered/battered (picture above). Nudity is not too far behind. Violence is pervasive throughout. The misogyny, perpetrated by men and women both, is unrelenting. Bizarre is also the choice to make the one explicit scene of sexual attack be at the hands of a woman. There is a necrophilia scene that is both disgusting and completely gratuitous.
The movie is beautiful, haunting, even though it is never once scary, in spite of being a “psychological horror film”. The cinematography is splendid, but the story is much like the characters’ beauty: skin deep and the luster of the looks fades pretty quickly, revealing not much substance or goings-on underneath. The film is just as vapid as the modeling industry it is depicting, and the worst part is that it clearly thinks it’s something special, but it’s actually its own worst nightmare: forgettable and empty.