Friday, April 28, 2017

The Neon Demon Review

'I don't want to be like them. They want to be like me.'

Blood, glitter, death and beauty. Such are the things that await sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) in the City of Stars. Here she becomes the object of obsession to a trio of villainous vixens comprised of makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), and veteran models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). 

The tone of the film is set from the moment we see Jesse draped limply over a baroque sofa, dripping in blood. Is this reality, or a sick, depraved fantasy? As the camera pans out, flashes reveal it to be an amateur photo shoot set to launch Jesse's budding career in the cut-throat fashion industry. Neon hues of blue and red flicker throughout, while strobes of white and red pulsate rhythmically in the darkness of a club where Jesse first meets her mannequin rivals. A body hangs suspended in the air, the human form admired under the glare of bright lights.

Nicholas Winding Refn does the very same with this film. Though instead of admiration, he offers scrutiny. A study in modern self-obsession and innocence corrupted, The Neon Demon is an abstract and intriguing cautionary tale, a visual fever dream of depraved beauty and shameless vanity. Refn presents us with Jesse, nymph-like and nubile. Whether through the decor of her modest motel room, her peachy beige dresses, her rosy pink cheeks or the gently cascading beach waves of her blonde hair - Jesse's pastel innocence is reflected everywhere she goes.

Her first shoot sees her naked and exposed, fresh meat laid bare before an intimidating photographer. All the more alluring is her soft, tentative innocence. Golden, she shines with each flash of the camera. But sharp edges are everywhere in this film, from the models' sharp collar bones to the geometric patterns found on the catwalk. Soft edges are soon cut into shape, and Jesse's naivety is quickly turned into narcissism as she understands her worth, and the power her beauty holds over people.

A criticism this film couldn't invite would be that it's visually boring. It could, however, be accused of relying on symbolism and shock value over any semblance of a real plot (a certain morgue scene involving Jena Malone's Ruby comes to mind...or, Hank's (Keanu Reeves) knife-tastic nightmare anyone?) Still, it's hard not to be magnetised by Jesse's spiritual journey. It's easy to see ourselves in the narcissistic world she inhabits, fighting for attention at every turn. In Gigi, Sarah and Ruby, there's a sense of longing. A longing for relevance, for the fleeting 'je ne sais quoi' Jesse possesses that makes her so captivating. But like a spring flower in bloom, her beauty is transient. Chewed up and spat out, her winsome charm withers into ugly egotism.

Described as a horror film about beauty, The Neon Demon marries the grotesque with the beautiful in this viscerally mesmerising freak show. Though as freaky as it all gets, it still manages to be quietly introspective. Through his four strong female leads, Refn holds a mirror to the most intrinsic of human desires. While his newest feature may not be as instantly likeable as something like Drive, it definitely won't fade into the background.