It’s difficult to label The Neon Demon as any one thing – horror, thriller, what have you. If you really wanted to, you could label it a “psychological thriller” – that’s probably the most fitting – but the film doesn’t operate within genre constraints, at least not initially. Really, The Neon Demon comes off more as a project, an audio-visual experience with the trappings of storytelling serving little purpose other than to guide it accordingly. Which is all to say that if one is familiar with the works of Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon fits comfortably within that schema.
The Neon Demon owes much of its being to the works of Dario Argento – Suspiria, specifically (the influence is everywhere and immediate) – and is the best recent example of “not style over substance, but style as substance,” normally a coda used as an easy excuse to compensate for arduously thin story, but very few films wholly own that statement and nurture it like The Neon Demon. And to really get where the film’s coming from, you have to shed the idea that it’s a story about people. The Neon Demon is a story about things – it’s about Los Angeles, it’s about a sexually pervasive industry filled with beguiling and strange people absorbed in selfish realities, and it’s about a culture that places beauty above all else and consumes the young in the process.
We follow Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young woman who recently arrived to L.A., looking to model with no discernible talent other than “being pretty.” She meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a friendly makeup artist who takes it upon herself to watch over Jesse in a way, introducing her to model industry friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Jesse’s very obviously the odd one out, behaviourally, but she quickly ascends the modelling ladder (not in a Star is Born-esque macro way), with everybody noting an undeniable magnetism about her, a perfection to her looks. Gigi and Sarah become increasingly scornful with Jesse, since her exquisite natural looks are affording her great opportunities despite their efforts to manufacture themselves for the same ones. Jesse’s very much the “it” girl, initially quietly so, but turmoil ratchets up along with her eventual narcissism.
Mostly everyone in The Neon Demon is creepy and/or off-kilter, aside from Jesse – this is partly due to the extremely deliberate, sparse dialogue (there are barely any monologues, with conversations mainly composed of quick back-and-forths), and to the pointed gazes towards Jesse, each harbouring clear intent of some kind, but probably not benevolent intent. This intensity can be brushed off as, you know, par for the industry course, but everything gets triply creepy when we find out Jesse is only 16 years old (and is told to pretend to be 19, as 18 is too “on the nose”), and it’s impossible to think of everybody’s intentions as anything more than uncomfortable.
The Neon Demon is kind (and clever) enough to withhold its shocks and violence until the last half, which departs heavily from the first. The first half is totally intoxicating, a slow-moving haze about Jesse finding her way to a modicum of success, with its allure predicated entirely on the stunning cinematography by Natasha Braier, who along with Refn flits between striking scenes of brilliant, vibrant colour to dreamier scenes, with characters lit softly, usually amid a gorgeous purple hue. There’s much to admire about these images, and the composition – with characters often centred in the frame – forces your eye to explore and it’s just a joy to view. The excellent score from regular Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, mixing Vangelis’ thumping electronic soundscapes and Giorgio Moroder’s disco flair, marinates the background, accentuating the dreaminess of the visuals. It’s also sweetly melancholic, managing to add a layer of innocence to Jesse and her journey (credit also goes to Fanning, who owns the character and legitimizes her extremely well) while deepening her character where the screenplay doesn’t. That’s not a critique – it’s exactly what The Neon Demon sets out to do, I think, using filmmaking to carve emotion. It’s a film where experiences are louder than words and expressions, and sure, that might feel a little empty, but this is about a teenage girl navigating a morally bankrupt industry and various people who want to suck the life out of her, so it’s only apropos that we feel empty.
The transition to the second half is slightly abrupt, but has a clear dividing line in Jesse’s runway show, which we see in a hypnotically lovely mix between her runway walk and her internal feelings. Jesse falls in love with herself, and the film shifts along with her newfound narcissism. It’s a distinct shift in every way – the music becomes more grumbling and dissonant, the beautiful hues vanish in favour of natural light, the compositions are more claustrophobic. The people become less like people, going from someone to something, embracing archetypes and shedding personalities. It’s also far more dangerous. Where The Neon Demon reveled in being mildly creepy without being too explicit before, it’s very unshackled here and wastes little time doing it. Jesse ditches her friend and kind-of boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) with a sudden lack of empathy, abandoning her one genuine semblance of a support system (even though the guy is looking to shag a teenager, so we’re not overly pressed). Her landlord, Hank (Keanu Reeves, in probably the least “nice guy” role Keanu Reeves has ever done and he’s terrific), goes from being licentious to completely disturbing. Then you have Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah, whose unsettling intent unravels in full. This all happens very quickly, but that’s the point – like Jesse, we’re allured to the beauty and the dream of what could be, only for things to go to total shit once we’re cinched and unprepared. Refn manages to keep pushing the film to new extremes, forcing you from one strong reaction to the next. Say what you want about The Neon Demon, but my god it’s not safe – nothing is sacred here, not even the beauty most of its characters covet so fondly. And then when you think everything ought to end, it still goes, culminating in unabashed freakishness, spewing gore amidst some of the glossiest lighting and framing the film gives. In the actual end, we’re left feeling numb, angry, confused, all without respite.
It’s not satisfying, admittedly, and it’s not exactly an enjoyable experience. Refn mentioned he wanted to make a film about beauty without critique or attack, and I think that’s a stretch (one of the earliest lines in the film, “Are you food, or are you sex?” is as clear a statement as any, not an overt critique towards the culture of beauty but a decidedly pointed observation regardless), though The Neon Demon is really a film that says as much or as little as you allow it to. It’s a wash as a story in the traditional sense and its characters are more things than people, but that’s its game – it’s not about people, it’s about how people become things to achieve self-obsessed ideals, losing their humanity in the effort to become perfect humans. The Neon Demon isn’t pleasant, but it’s brazen, and is so assured in its ability to affect you through sensory experience that I can’t help but be very impressed at the grotesque pageant on offer.