Elle Fanning’s character Jesse isn’t dead when the film opens, it just looks like she is. Jesse lies motionless on a couch, her head and legs hanging off in an uncomfortable, lifeless way, with her neck covered in so much blood it’s dripping down her arm. A man is taking photographs of the haunting scene.
It’s all a haunting scene in The Neon Demon, where beautiful women and vile men navigate a Los Angeles world that feeds on the innocent and glorifies the flawless. Nicholas Winding Refn creates a stunning visual and visceral film, perfectly framed, lighted, and scored, to tell a chilling and satiric tale of the modeling industry and the obsessive male gaze.
Jesse is a 16-year-old orphan who’s stumbled to L.A. with nothing but her perceived naiveté and chaste beauty. She catches the eye of, well, everyone, making a friend in a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), a mentor in a model executive (Christina Hendricks), an admirer in a sleazy motel owner (Keanu Reeves), and plenty of jealous onlookers.
That she attracts men both talented and grotesque, both confident and insecure, rattles a couple of veteran models and friends of Ruby: Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). As Jesse meets industry stereotypes, which Refn enjoys to mock in a gravely serious way, and has encounters that subvert the audience’s expectations, such as making Reeves a slime ball, we’re all treated to a surreal descent into horror.
There are maybe a few jumps, but instead the terror comes slowly, ever escalating and numbing you, putting you in a trance while keeping you on edge. Refn certainly borrows from other directors who dabble in the macabre and surreal (David Lynch, for example), so you’re free to decide to what extent its derivative or an homage. What’s more, he aims to disgust, and succeeds.
It’s drivel or it’s art, it’s gratuitous or it’s satire, it’s repulsive or hypnotic, and it’s a fine, fine line that separates these far opposing forces. It depends on your perspective, or put another way as one character in particvulr might say in the film, beauty is in the eye of the holder.