Jesse’s gonna die. From The Neon Demon‘s opening scene, a staged tableaux that has the aspiring model (Elle Fanning) slumped on a settee, head back, covered in a rush of blood as if her throat’s been cut, it’s clear that she’s doomed. Her demeanor in front of the camera is compared to a “deer in the headlights.” She has no family, no friends, and nobody keeping tabs on her after her arrival in L.A. She has full lips, big eyes, and a delightful nose. She is 16 years old, and everyone she meets comments on her beauty. She may as well be wearing a sign on her back: “Kill me.”
Jesse’s rivals — Sarah (Abbey Lee) and the surgically modified Gigi (Bella Heathcote) — are cruel but terrified figures, career-focused lookers all too fixated on the ravages of time that age them out of the industry. Jesse’s friends are anything but; save for the sweet-seeming boy who tells her that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, she is quickly surrounded by desperate characters and opportunists who see her as a tool, a meal ticket, or a potential victim. As modern fairy tales go, this plucky heroine is deep in the woods. Floridly imagined by director Nicholas Winding Refn, Jesse’s environs are an amalgam of tropes from movies in which Los Angeles plays itself — dark houses in the Hollywood Hills with a well framed view of downtown from the swimming pool, questionable motels catering to impoverished ambitions, and plain-looking, warehouse-like rooms where young women strip to the skin for evaluation by the designers and artists who control the money that brings the city to life.
As told by director Nicholas Winding Refn, Jesse’s story is part tragedy and part comedy, but also part horror movie and part pornography. The starkly colorful, high-contrast images are a product, Refn has insisted, of his own color blindness, and there’s a lot to take in here — red blood against a shiny blue dress, the pink glow of the poshest ladies’ room in L.A., and the indistinct, white-on-white tableaux of a group of pale, mostly Caucasian models sitting patiently in their underwear, waiting for an audition. The impossibly smooth flesh tones of the assembled women are especially alluring, and they’re partly a product of the vintage anamorphic lenses deployed by DP Natasha Braier. The subtly gauzy look suggests the analog diffusion techniques employed by David Hamilton and other purveyors of 1970s erotica, but with a clinical digital update. Interestingly, the same lenses were used to shoot Ex Machina, another film that invited critique of the sexualized qualities of its imagery.
If The Neon Demon has a misogynist streak, it’s in its eventual indulgence of the idea that every woman on screen is some kind of monster. But even that indulgence is kind of satisfying in context. After so much narrative foreplay, prurience gives way to climax in a cascading series of increasingly surreal set pieces devoted to violence, necrophilia, and body horror. Having already invited us to consider the way that consumer culture insists on devouring images of young and vulnerable women to sate its vampiric urges, Refn self-consciously devotes himself to fan service — at one point, he actually has Lee and Heathcote showering together in the nude, bathed in Paisley Park light and dripping with virgin’s blood. Coming as it does in a film that’s criticized consumer culture for preying on young and vulnerable women, it’s both indefensible and kind of thrilling, with a subversive erotic charge. Moreover, it crystallizes Refn’s take on the fashion industry not so much as cautionary tale, monster movie or satire as out-and-out parody.
But the longer The Neon Demon goes on, the more distended it gets. There’s enough material here to drive a killer thriller that plays like Showgirls meets Heathers for an hour or so before going straight to hell for 30 minutes, after which the credit scroll would hit the screen like a mic drop. Would that version of the film lose some of Fanning’s licentious, thematically rich flirtations with her own mirror images? Quite possibly. Would the film lose Keanu Reeves’ pointed cameo as Jesse’s dream rapist? Maybe. It would survive. But Refn is infatuated with his own images, and they lead him down blind alleys and narrative cul de sacs that kill narrative momentum without adding much to the experience. The individual pictures are lovely, but not so much as Refn supposes; they suggest Wong Kar-Wai without the poetry or Jonathan Glazer without the rigor. There’s a fine joke at the end of the film that’s completely on point and absolutely worthy of Salvador Dali — the audience I saw it with actually gasped at the punchline — but the scene leading up to it is distended and disconnected from the rest of the narrative. Sure, it features some groovy clothes. But most of the atmosphere evaporates before the gag lands. It’s rare that a movie as visually striking as this one can also be so dull from scene to scene, and that’s what hurts it the most.