Nicolas Winding Refn has never been one to announce himself quietly. In The Neon Demon, he takes that attention-grabbing impulse to its logical conclusion. Before we see anything in his fashion-world fantasia, we see the filmmaker's initials: NWR. It's the kind of haute couture label you'd see on a $500 purse, a garish reminder that this is no knockoff.
It even comes with a matching watchword: "Beauty isn't everything; it's the only thing."
That disenchanting mantra isn't exactly profound, but little is in a field regarded as the height of superficiality.
Refn has one of the most fully realized aesthetics of any working filmmaker, even if his ideas remain inchoate: The Neon Demon is about as deep as a puddle, but the image it reflects back is so mesmeric you may stare so long you fall in.
You'll be greeted there by Jesse (Elle Fanning), a recent arrival in Los Angeles hoping to see her name in lights. Barely 16 but pretending to be three years older, she holes up in a seedy Pasadena motel when she isn't wowing casting agents and designers.
A mountain lion slinks down from the hills and into her room one night, but that's nothing compared to the predatory slumlord who runs the place (Keanu Reeves) and a cabal of catty frenemies: two other models (Bella Heathcote and real-life supermodel Abbey Lee) and a makeup artist (Jena Malone).
Their misadventures take place in a heightened reality verging on a dreamstate, an amoral playground for the beautiful people. Increasingly with each film, that's the tension at the center of Refn's work: Drive's next-level violence was candy-coated with synth pop and fairy-tale thematics, but both Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon have stripped the Danish auteur's outer layers of their most pleasant ornaments. The latent ugliness hiding inside is clawing its way out.
Despite (or maybe because of) their beauty, Jesse's adversarial colleagues take it as a given that "nobody likes the way they look." Refn finds high comedy in this troika's bitchy posturing, a dog-eat-dog hierarchy in which the higher-ups, most of them male, pit young women against one another. He doesn't explicitly critique this world so much as luxuriate in its hot-pink glow, leaving long silences where others would insert declamatory speeches.
Pay attention, then, when Jesse insists that "I'm not as helpless as I look" with a hint of defensiveness in her voice. She's called "fresh meat" by her hyena-like cohort, but the ascendant star knows something her more experienced peers will never cop to: She doesn't want to be like them; they want to be like her.
Jesse is the Platonic ideal of beauty among people who treat it as a literal currency. A few get rich, but many more die trying.
By mixing high fashion and lowbrow genre impulses, Refn renders the catwalks, parties, and closed sets a self-contained ecosystem. Each career milestone — being the face of a vaunted designer's new line, securing a shoot with a choosy photographer — comes at a price.
For Lee and Heathcote's characters, past success betrays their present soullessness. They're The Neon Demon's villains, but also its most emblematic victims.
Whatever his faults — many of which he readily admits to in interviews — Refn is devoted to making capital-M movies in a way that few others even attempt. Watching The Neon Demon is like mainlining an injection of cinema directly into your veins. The overwhelming sensory experience isn't always a pleasant trip, but you've rarely seen anything quite like it.
The act of creating appears to double as self-therapy for Refn, which may lend The Neon Demon's title a second meaning — he's certainly exorcising something here. Refn knowingly invites dismissal if not outright scorn, but there's a sincerity to his ludicrous vision that compels you to give it a second look — even if it can't possibly be as rewarding as the first.
The Neon Demon
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn