[This is a repost of Talia’s review from the Cannes Film Festival where The Neon Demon made its world premiere; the film opens today in limited release]
When The Neon Demon was announced as a vampiric, cannibalistic horror flick, what I didn’t expect was a two-hour high-end cosmetics commercial. The opening shot is a neon-colored gore photo of an angelic, golden-haired girl worthy of a fashion magazine spread than a murder scene. And that’s what it is: a fashion shoot. The “victim” is aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning).
Demon is an absurd twist on the classic “sweet girl comes to Hollywood and quickly gets discovered” story. Jesse arrives in Los Angeles (a very different city from the one director Nicolas Winding Refn depicted in Drive), gets signed by a top agent (Christina Hendricks) and quickly books gigs, provoking jealousy all around her. She is first noticed by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) during that morbid photo shoot. Ruby quickly introduces her to a milieu obsessed with physical perfection, and in particular to two of her ruthless model friends (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). An innocent girl who confesses she is a virgin, Jesse nevertheless knows she’s pretty and can earn a living off her looks, but is also completely unaware of its force. At first.
As she captivates everyone who meets her she stirs envy in the other two women who will go to any length to have what she has—a perfect face, youth. Elle develops an ego as she realizes the power of her beauty. She laps up the creed of a seedy fashion designer—who is so entranced by her perfection—says, “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
Jesse is thus deflowered of her innocence and Narcissus has cast its destructive roots. We watch—without real surprise—the gradual change in her character, her angelic face now merely a facade. She knows other women want what she has.
The most noteworthy dialogue comes not from voices, but the brilliant score of Cliff Martinez, recreating the ambience of the film and miraculously filling in some story gaps, too. Neon Demon is less a full movie, and more like an expensive fashion shoot with a photographer who thinks he’s something between Michelangelo and Helmut Newton.
In fact, the whole movie resembles a sophisticated Vogue spread. It is not a cheap knock-off attempting to look couture, it replicates high end fashion in every minute detail, thanks to costume designer Erin Benach, production designer Elliott Hostetter and cinematographer Natasha Braier.
The combination of the sound, imagery and design keeps us mesmerized. Beauty isn’t everything in The Neon Demon. It’s the only thing. Refn has offered the umpteenth critique of the modeling world and the artificiality of Los Angeles in a purely visual allegory that’s aided by Braier’s brilliant cinematography. It’s a movie drenched in porno chic aesthetics (and blood) and neon lights. Every shot is perfectly framed, every beat of the score auguring darkness. Bathed in neon, it gives a glow of a demon nature.
Every character has a dark side, some more demonic than others. All are perverse. One engages in a disturbing scene of lesbian necrophilia, while another could clearly run the Bates Motel. Jesse lives in a seedy motel in Pasadena, run by a morbid motel manager (Keanu Reeves). NWR (as Refn’s chic credit name reads) doesn’t really take him anywhere beyond the fact that he could possibly come to your room and assault you. Reeves merely serves as a transition to another chapter for Jesse. Despite her fear of him, she could move to another motel or even with her pseudo boyfriend, the naive lapdog Dean (Karl Glusman), who’s patiently waiting for her to fall into his arms (or bed)—even though she’s only 16.
Still, the motel appears warm compared to the empty mansion Ruby is house sitting and invites her to when Jesse decides she needs help. And this is where the plot’s announced promise begins to unfold and the horror story finally comes to light. In terms of story, it’s too little, too late. But in terms of beauty, it soars. It’s brilliantly filmed, brilliantly scored. But like Jesse, it’s sure full of itself.