Last Thursday, I was blessed to have had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of what may prove to be Nicolas Winding Refn’s magnum opus. The Neon Demon, a film that seems to champion a new world order of style over substance (a campaign that is difficult to argue against when faced with Natasha Braier’s extravagantly luxurious cinematography) is a sleek and gorgeous monster, a postmodern ménage-a-trois between Suspiria, Heathers, and Black Swan, coated in glitter and bathed in a sumptuous wash of pinks and blues. It is a lush, seductive, darkly polished fairy tale exploring the deadly calculus of beauty, power, and consumption, propelled by sparse dialogue and a pulsating, shimmery, and evocatively sinister electronic soundtrack gifted to the world by the remarkable composer Cliff Martinez (which I pre-ordered immediately.)
The pacing is almost agonizingly glacial, and deliberately so. The opening tableau, with the instantly iconic image of a blood-drenched Elle Fanning reclining corpse-like on a rococo loveseat, perfectly captures the atmosphere of the film – the long, hypnotic zooms emphasizing the exquisite pleasures of delaying gratification in service of the journey. And what an intoxicating journey The Neon Demon turns out to be.
A quick overview of the plot without any major spoilers: Elle Fanning’s Jesse is a very young ingénue, drawn to Los Angeles in search of wealth and fame in the cutthroat world of professional modelling. Her It Girl quality attracts as many enemies as it does admirers, inspiring passionate obsessions in both sets. As she is pulled deeper into the scene and her star ascends, she is seduced by an illusion of invincibility granted to her by her extraordinary beauty and youth. A hypnotic and mesmerizing sequence at a runway show showcases her transformation from naïf to Narcissus, as she recognizes and harnesses her power. The desperation of those around her to extinguish her power or capture it for themselves soon grows to shockingly violent heights, culminating in a startling third act that gleefully blends the glamorous with the macabre. This is a polarizing film that inspired both walkouts and standing ovations at Cannes – love it or hate it, you can’t deny that with The Neon Demon, Refn has created a singular cinematic experience that rejects and transgresses boundaries of film-making with cynical insouciance and a wry sense of humour.
Keanu Reeves turns in a very effective and unexpected performance as the predatory and thuggish owner of the run-down motel Jesse calls home. Jena Malone’s Ruby, the worldly makeup artist with a hidden agenda, is a triumphant high-point in the indie darling’s ever-interesting career. Malone’s performance is sharp, understated, and provocative – I long to see her take on more roles like these in the future. Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee handily portray Gigi and Sarah, the jaded and jealous rivals for whom Jesse’s rise equals a rapid demise. Desmond Harrington’s disturbing and nearly-silent turn as a high-fashion photographer made me genuinely uneasy, and Christina Hendricks was perfectly cast in her too-short appearance as Jesse’s modelling agent.
Call it dangerous. Call it genius. The Neon Demon?
Score: 10 out of 10 sharpened stilettos.
- When Jesse’s photographer friend (Karl Glusman) argues for the elevation of substance over style during the second act, he is summarily dismissed from the story.
- Gigi’s good-natured insistence on letting the waitress rattle off the specials “because they work so hard to memorize them” (even though none of the women at the table were willing to eat actual food) was hilarious.
- The chilling knife scene in the motel (you’ll know it when you see it) had me literally recoiling in my seat. Brilliantly awful.
The Neon Demon opens in limited release on June 24th.