The Neon Demon (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Nicolas Winding Refn is an interesting and capable writer-director; anybody would be proud to have “Bronson” and “Drive” in their oeuvre. However, although a gifted filmmaker in that he has a knack for picking near-perfect soundtrack to accompany specific images, he is not yet at the level to pull off a beast like “The Neon Demon,” a would-be arthouse psychological horror film about a sixteen-year-old trying to make it into the modeling industry.
To be successful in this type of film, the helmer of the picture must underline the story’s theme, or themes, in just about every scene. Despite the numerous beautiful high fashion magazine inspired images, the forefront is almost always the visuals rather than what is, or are, coursing in veins of the facade. This creates a superficial experience, which is partly the point because I believe the story is a critique of the fashion industry or Hollywood in general given the rigorous standards of women’s physical beauty, but it is never involving since we never get to learn what makes the heroine tick.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse the young aspiring model and she is convincing as an innocent girl navigating her way through a cutthroat industry. There is a pureness and softness to her that radiates a warm feeling and so when Jesse enters a room we understand why photographers, designers, and casting directors look her way. Less impressive, however, is when Fanning portrays the flip side of the coin. The glowering looks, the tight jaw and mouth, the long but empty silences come across too much as a performance. This is why the second half is much weaker than the first; we no longer believe or relate to the character that anchors the story.
There are a few interesting themes, one of which involves Jesse always being regarded, whether it be a boy (Karl Glusman) with whom she meets mere days after her arrival in Los Angeles, a makeup artist (Jena Malone) with an interesting job at night, creepy photographers (Desmond Harrington), and fellow fashion models. Compliments are always being thrown her way, some genuine but mostly out jealousy. We are given a chance to laugh at the highly competitive models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) and their incredibly poor self-esteem.
Perhaps most noteworthy are scenes that show a room full of people but no one is talking to one another. The use of silence amplifies the fantasy. People, looking soulless, corpse-like, are either looking away or at Jesse, the sunshine in the middle of winter. When the critique is pointed and specific to our modern culture of selfies, wannabe/self-proclaimed models, and celebrity-worship, the film commands relevance.
Although not short of ambition, as detailed above, for the most part, however, the “The Neon Demon” is a trial to sit through. There are things to see but there is no one to root for. There is not one specimen worth putting under a microscope to undergo a thorough examination. Also, I felt that the resolution is so literal (given a particular common saying about the fashion industry), I wondered if Refn gave up on trying to come up with a more inspired way to end his story. Clearly, David Lynch he is yet not. At least with Lynch, there is no compromise.