“You can always tell when beauty is manufactured.”
I’m not sure it’s possible to watch one of Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent films without being utterly absorbed by some sort of feeling. Many take the route of disgust or indifference. Others are enamored by sight and sound. However, with The Neon Demon he’s made a fully fledged story fueled by consumption set against the backdrop of the Pasadena hills, tinted by red-light district neons and devilishly tantric club music. The film admits that we typically see outward beauty first before excavating for more levels, which is what I’m afraid most viewers will be unwilling to do in regard to this challenging movie. The sensual and stimulating visuals stun, but make sure to keep your mind in check; it’s all there for a reason.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) travels to California from Georgia with little baggage. No family. Clothes and money few and far between. She does have a face though, draped by golden locks, skin so clear and perfect you’d swear she was photosensitive. Jesse is natural, quite contrary to the nip/tuck universe of the modeling industry. A make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) sees this quality in Jesse, as does predatory motel owner Hank (Keanu Reeves). Jesse even has a slight fling with a novice shutterbug (Karl Glusman). The Neon Demon manages to sexualize this 16 year-old girl without exploiting her, showing that she is the rare darling jewel lusted after by both genders to be held, displayed, and reduced to an object of immaculate beauty.
This girl doesn’t need them though. What’s different about Jesse is that she realizes she is the envy of every other model. She knows the hypnotic effect of a slight gaze, the charm of a feigned naiveté, the power it takes to say no. In the same breath, Jesse becomes a victim of the aforementioned consumption, allowing outward beauty to distill her shy proclivities into breeding a misshapen and confident inner-self. That spells blood in the water for two “older” and jealous mannequins, not so much rivals as they are impersonators trying to bottle beauty incarnate. In this superficial daydream, women choose their lipstick by whether they consider themselves to be sex or food. Jesse is deemed dessert, like she’s some sort of hybrid sapling combination of the two waiting to ooze. And when she does you can be sure the hyenas with an appetite for allure will be looking to replenish their stock.
I’m still up in the air in terms of Elle Fanning’s acting ability – mostly because Refn directs through such an austere, calculated lens – but she’s perfectly cast as a divine goddess in the flesh. Her fluid movement, dead eyes, coyly distanced teasing. The physicality is spot-on. It’s all thanks to Refn though, and one scene tells you everything you need to know about this hyperbolic drama with a horror stance. A highly regarded photographer asks Jesse to strip nude, paints her with gold, the camera always fixed just above breast height. You imagine Refn as the man doing the shoot, using questionable tactics but producing an irresistible image. By this very method, The Neon Demon is his deepest dive into magical realism, infusing the unreal into the uniform through intrigue, sensory assault, and a polymorphic sense of beauty. How it attracts and repels each and every second is against the rules of cinematic nature.
“Beauty isn’t everything…it’s the only thing.”
Rating: 4 out of 5