How to describe director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon”? You could use five dollar words like transgressive and hallucinatory. Or make comparisons to “Mulholland Drive” and “The Eyes of Laura Mars,” but none of that really comes close to capturing the nervy essence of what Refn attempts here.
Elle Fanning stars as the underage, somewhat naive model Jessie. An orphaned teen from a small town who’s been in Los Angeles “for like, a minute” scores a shoot with a hot shot photographer (Desmond Harrington). “She has that thing,” says her only friend, a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone). Jessie’s fresh-faced appeal opens doors in the industry—Alessandro Nivola plays a big time designer who gives her the closing spot in his show even though its her first trip down a runway—but earns the ire of established models like Sarah and Gigi (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) who she is replacing. “What does it feel like to walk into a room and it’s like the middle of winter and you’re the sun?” Sarah asks the new girl.
Refn, who also wrote the script, has pulled off something quite extraordinary here. He has made a movie that visually mirrors his subject. Setting the film in the vacuous world of fashion allows him to indulge his filmic sense while mirroring his visual ideas in the script. When the designer says, “True beauty is the highest currency we have,” he may have been talking about the fashion biz or Refn’s style of composing gorgeous images that accompany the film’s performances. I say accompany because there is a chilly disconnect between the story, which, true to its subject, is kind of hollow, and striking images on the screen. To reinforce that notion Refn even has a character say, “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
A gutsy late movie turn toward necrophilia, horror and violence, while heart pounding and jarring, mostly draws the film even further away from any kind of traditional structure, although does graphically display how far people will go to capture the true essence of beauty.
“The Neon Demon” is a tone poem. The cast is terrific, especially Fanning in a role that requires steely determination and vulnerability, Keanu Reeves fans might get a kick out of seeing him go down ‘n dirty as a scummy motel manager and fans of “Mad Men” will enjoy seeing Christina Hendricks back at work, but this is a film more about feel than narrative and is the very definition of a “not for everyone” movie.