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USA/Denmark/France 2016
Directed by
Nicolas Winding Refn
118 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
3.5 stars

The Neon Demon

Synopsis: When Jesse (Elle Fanning) turns sixteen she moves to Los Angeles with aspirations for a career as a model. After checking into a sleazy motel run by equally sleazy Hank (Keanu Reeves) she meets local boy Dean (Karl Glusman) who takes a set of provocative photographs of her and soon she’s signed by powerful agent Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks) who gets her a more professional photoshoot with leading fashion photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington). Then Jesse meets and befriends makeup artist Ruby (Jenna Malone) who introduces her to two other models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Both are instantly envious of Jesse’s youth, natural beauty and innocence. When Jesse is chosen over Sarah for a big job with preeminent fashion designer Roberto Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) Sarah and Gigi’s envy manifests itself in quite terrifying ways.

I find it hard to like this film. But I find it even harder to dismiss it. Nicolas Winding Refn is unquestionably a distinctive filmmaker and here he offers us both the kind of intensity and bold cinematic choices we saw in Bronson (2008) along with the stylish moodiness and malevolent undercurrent of raw violence that we saw in Drive (2011). It’s a lush and visually overwhelming work with rich, saturated, beautiful production design from Elliott Hostetter and art direction from Austin Gorg all captured in a seductive fusing of colour and light by cinematographer Natasha Braier and underscored by an evocative Cliff Martinez soundtrack. The screen seems to pulse with imagery that is well matched by Fanning who is sublime as the fresh-faced ingénue. Malone (a Hunger Games alumnus) is also terrific as Jesse’s friend – make-up artist to the fashion stars by day, cosmetician to the deceased in a nearby funeral home by night. She exudes an understated power that, by the end of the film, manifests in ways that are unexpected and shocking.

This is more than just an exposé of that venal, carnal world of high-end fashion modelling. It’s a meditation on our obsession with control over the body and with the packaging and representation (usually misrepresentation) of perceptions of beauty and the female form. The irony here is that whilst youth is the currency of the day, it is also the big lie – Jesse is told by her agent to always represent herself as being nineteen because eighteen can be iffy (and clearly sixteen is way too young). When Jesse questions whether anyone will believe her, Roberta tells her that they will believe what they are told.  On the flip side, the older models tell Jesse that once you’re twenty-one, you’re all but redundant.  Clearly youth in this world is a narrow and relative concept.

The world of Neon Demon is also a world of predators where the prey - women like Jesse and Gigi and Sarah - eagerly set themselves up to be consumed by the powerful men who determine their fate, whether those men be the fashion designer, the photographer or even the low-life hotel manager. Jesse proves to be a fast learner in matters like this and quickly concludes that nice boys like Dean don’t rate.

What she also learns if that fresh is the name of the game but that when fresh becomes stale, as it does with Gigi and Sarah, a little work might help them stay in that game. As Gigi says, “plastics is just good grooming”.  It’s clever of Refn and co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham to let such a story be told through four very strong female characters. What’s disappointing, though, is that the film still retains a level of voyeurism epitomised by the eroticised shower scene between Gigi and Sarah (although the reason for the shower is anything but erotic). It seems at odds with the underlying themes of the film to still allow the camera to drool over the women’s bodies in the way that it does.

Neon Demon
has a lot to say and, although it seems to take a long time before it says anything, when it eventually finds its voice, spilling over into the horror genre as it does, its pace increases rapidly, like a fast-beating heart, and Jesse discovers that falling prey to the power of men is nothing compared to the predatory nature of envious women.




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