Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's spellbinding new film is a movie in love with its own reference points, in thrall to the image and cinema's ability to deliver a fantasy with one foot in the real world. Arguably more abstract than his previous movies (and certainly more focused than 2012's Only God Forgives), strangely despite all of the cinematic touch points presented to us throughout the movie (of which more later) it was the novels and short stories of Bret Easton Ellis that I was reminded of most strongly. With his cast of burnt out vapid young people standing in for the author's pessimistic outlook on the culture of celebrity and facile surface glamour, watching the cast of The Neon Demon was like seeing Easton Ellis's more extreme characters come to life.
Jesse (played sensitively and carefully by Elle Fanning) is a 16 year old who moves to LA to get into modelling. She is clearly different to the glacial, and rather more jaded girls with whom she works, but because of her fresh facedness is seen as something new and different - the 'vampire' motif is used again and again in this film as we see artists and agents feeding off each other. Jesse's rundown LA accommodation (complete with scuzzy landlord convincingly played by Keanu Reeves) couldn't be more different from the hallucinatory world of the models, where on photo shoots and in clubs the girls are illuminated by neons and primary colours. And it's into this world that Jesse gets pulled, gaining in self confidence as her model colleagues become less and less tolerant of her artlessness and the attention she generates, and finally resolving to do something about this ingenue in their midst.
This is a rather simplistic summary of the plot, whose nuances run much deeper than my description. But hey, you can read about the plot anywhere - I also need to tell you that it's a horror film without in any way being a horror film, just to confuse things further.
The Neon Demon uses a glacial directorial gaze to dissect, fetishise and ultimately indict the contemporary fashion industry (a theme deployed in Easton Ellis's 1999 novel Glamorama). It's an artificial world and Winding Refn glorifies in showing this - he has been quoted on more than one occasion that this is a film about 'the insanity of beauty'.
There's an intriguing scene, set in an office with a cameo from
Christina Hendricks as an agent, who with her fuller figure seems oddly grotesque next to the pallid, wan forms of the other girls, but quite natural next to Jesse. As she explains to her young star to be that Jesse will make
a great model, a street scene with slowly moving traffic is shown in
the background through the office windows, which I'm fairly certain is
either animated or the result of some skillful model work. In a similarly jarring moment, later in the movie one
of the cast members removes her sunglasses and it's impossible to tell
whether she's real or a model (rather than a catwalk model, if you see what I mean), so vacant are her eyes.
The style-over-substance subtext deploys for many of its visual reference points films from the 1970s and 1980s; the youthful beauty and violence mix recalls Brian de Palma's Carrie (1976), the shots of the models together has the unreality of the dancers in Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977). I was also reminded of the detached style of the early films of Peter Greenaway (specifically 1985's A Zed and Two Noughts), and in the photographing of LA, the Zoetrope movies of Francis Ford Coppola, such as One From the Heart (1981). Artifice is at the heart of The Neon Demon, and the opening shot is rather typical. A girl (Jesse) lies immobile, possibly dead, on a sofa in a decorated room, covered in blood. The camera draws slowly back and we realise this isn't a murder scene but a set, and when it moves further still the whole living room effect is encased in black framed in vivid red neon - it's as if one level of unreality isn't enough; apparently Winding Refn is colour blind, so the lack of contrasts in the movie's colour scheme comes straight from the eye of the director. His use of mirrors, geometric shapes and even arcane symbolism occludes reality further.
The 'NWR' stamp at the beginning of the film announces Nicolas Winding Refn as a brand, like perfume or a fashion range. Maybe this is a joke on himself. After all he's no stranger to a bit of the old self reflexiveness, having been the central figure in two documentaries, 2006's Gambler, covering the period of his extensive financial difficulties, and the
2014 movie My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. I think he knows he's
made a great film and it's for everyone else to catch up. In interviews Winding Refn is big on his no compromise policy, which has seen him fall out with stars, directors and famously walk off the set of the planned remake of The Equaliser three months before shooting began. Audiences have been as split over The Neon Demon as they were for Only God Forgives, but I'd rather have him make uncompromising films than Drive 2, that's for sure.