The Neon Demon

Year: 2016
Production Co: Space Rocket Nation
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Writer: Nicholas Winding Refn/Mary Laws/Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Abby Lee, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves

One of the most interesting things about The Neon Demon might be that director Nic Winding Refn wanted to make a horror movie first, only later deciding the world of modelling in contemporary Los Angeles would be his setting.

It feels instead like he wanted to satirise the dark side of Hollywood – the scheming, ambition and backstabbing, the way the system thrives on the Next Big Thing, chewing up and spitting out one beautiful ingénue after another in its insatiable pursuit of it. The 'horror' (such as it is) where people literally eat someone in order to subsume their X factor feels more like a Dracula metaphor for what the script is really saying.

Whichever came first – the idea and the setting – it's certainly not the first time a filmmaker or author has shone a light on the Faustian corruption behind the glamour, but we rarely see it done with as much self-assured style as Refn does here.

Elle Fanning could easily be squandering her growing cachet in Marvel movies and tentpoles right now (see Elizabeth Olsen) and deserves huge kudos for choosing projects this interesting. She plays Jesse, a sweetly gormless teenage girl who moves to LA to try and become a model.

When we first meet her she's in the midst of a photo shoot she hopes to use to get some attention or contacts. Art directed and photographed by her young male friend Dean (Karl Glusman, who played the male protagonist in Gaspar Noe's Love 3D), it shows her reclining on a sumptuous chaise lounge, heavily made up and coiffed, pretend blood seeping from a razor-thin cut across her throat, onto the chair and the floor as he snaps away.

It seems to be Refn's sales pitch for the whole movie – beauty with its throat slit – and his introductory effort to shock (maybe anger) you all at once.

Of course, he could be parodying his own allegorical set-up – it's not the only scene that seems to talk about the commodification of womens' bodies. Another sequence shows a room full of models sitting around in their underwear waiting to be selected for a job, on display like sides of beef.

From the moment Jesse starts showing her work around, industry hangers-on start swirling like vultures around a carcass. From Christina Hendricks' plain- talking agency owner to make-up girl Ruby (Jena Malone), everyone wants a piece of the clueless girl, seeming to smell the success she's going to become and hoping to bask in reflected glory.

Jesse indeed rises quickly through the ranks, suddenly being shot by the hottest photographer in town and swept away to glamourous parties and locales even though – in her innocence – she barely seems able to comprehend what's going on around her.

Then comes the protracted sequence of a fashion show that seems to depict Jesse going down a nightmarish rabbit hole where she drinks the Kool aid, coming out the other side believing her own hype and becoming the worst example of all the greed and jealousy around her.

It's all to Dean's (and our) despair – in one of the film's most chilling exchanges he demands of her 'why do you want to be like them?' Cool as ice and hardly moving a muscle, Jesse murmurs 'they all want to be like me'.

Two other girls who comprise her circle of 'friends', Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), can barely contain their desperation and envy at Jesse's success, and with Ruby's complicity, they'll do anything to steal her magic.

After the impenetrable plot of Only God Forgives, it's a relief how accessible the story of The Neon Demon is. Despite it all seeming like a pretty up-front metaphor for modern fame it's no less an interesting tale for it. Along the way, of course, Refn is too avant-garde not to pepper the proceedings with all sorts of other similies and styles.

A recurring subplot is the grimy motel where Jesse lives when she arrives in town, presided over by the sleazy manager (Keanu Reeves). As anyone who's ever been to LA knows, it's kind of filthy overall – a place where the money, privilege and glamour can't overcome or hide the breadth of poverty or crumbling infrastructure nobody wants to pay the upkeep for.

The grimy motel jostles for space alongside the gilded, shining locales of photo shoots and industry parties just like in the real LA, and when an intruder in Jesse's room turns out to be a mountain lion, it seems to be a reminder that behind all the human artifice is nature itself, always threatening to burst through and remind us how close it is.

The whole thing is a nightmarescape of motifs and ideas that are as distinctly Los Angelean as any great movie that's been set there (all the way from Billy Wilder to David Lynch), and once again a foreign filmmaker seems to understand the soul of the most American of locales better than anyone. Of course, being one of the new breed of enfant terrible European directors there's also murder, cannibalism and gay necrophilia thrown in.

Refn is a brilliant visualist, but where his aesthetic was one of dark and fear in the dour Only God Forgives, here he weaves a gorgeous visual and audio style (with a good ear for a musical soundtrack, just like his contemporary Noe) that suits the drama on screen beautifully. It veers from dark and scary to hard-lined and classical and the colours, furnishings and sounds perfectly capture the mood of each scene.

The potential for visuals to serve the story is what cinema was invented for, and despite the oversaturation of visuals in most movies thanks to CGI, it's all too rare for a filmmaker to meld them so successfully. The Neon Demon is a better film about Hollywood than plenty of movies that come from Hollywood itself can manage nowadays.

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