In Nicolas Winding Refn’s film The Neon Demon, Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a sixteen year-old pretending she’s nineteen, looking to make it as a model in Los Angeles. Jesse’s beauty renders all of the men around her smitten and all of the women around her jealous. Things don’t end well.
The Neon Demon is a truly bizarre film, gorgeous to look at but empty of character depth or anything resembling a narrative arc.
There is a plethora of memorable, gorgeous imagery in the film. Mr. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Briaer can compose a staggeringly beautiful frame. There is imagery in this film that has stuck with me in the days since I saw it. For that alone Mr. Refn and his team are certainly deserving of praise.
It’s interesting to me that this film about fashion and the fixation on beautiful women, and the idea of a woman as a beautiful image and little more, is itself a film filled to overflowing with beautiful imagery but one that stubbornly refuses to allow us access into any of the characters. I assume this was by design, which for me renders the film an interesting intellectual exercise but not a film that I really enjoyed. I wish we’d been allowed to know or understand what was going on beneath the surface of Jesse (Elle Fanning), Ruby (Jenna Malone), Sarah (Abbey Lee, from Mad Max Fury Road) or Gigi (Bella Heathcote). The film keeps all of them at a distance, as beautiful but unknowable objects.
There is a dreamy, hallucinogenic air to the film. It is hard to know what is real and what is fantasy. (The Neon Demon reminds me in this respect somewhat of Black Swan. Both are about women competing in an intense field that focuses on a near-unattainable perfection of beauty, and both feature twists into unreality and hallucination. But where Black Swan succeeded both as an interesting character study and as a riveting thriller, The Neon Demon is neither.)
Elle Fanning has come a long way from Super 8; her acting skill and movie-star charisma has only grown. She is well-cast in the lead role, and there are some moments of incredible performance that show us what a talent she is. For instance, there’s a moment at a photo-shoot when the inexperienced Jesse is asked to undress by a photographer she wants to impress. We watch the whole scene play out on Ms. Fanning’s face in extreme close-up, as she goes through a range of emotions, and it is quite extraordinary.
As I noted above, the film is filled with riveting imagery. That opening shot of Jesse at a photo shoot, lying in what appears to be a pool of her own blood. Her bizzarro hallucination waiting to walk down a catwalk. The image of her standing, luminous, at the edge of a diving board looking down into the empty pool. Jenna Malone’s eyebrows-raising sex scene with a corpse. I could go on.
But while I can respect Nicolas Winding Refn’s skills at creating this dreamy, erotic, attention-getting imagery, I find that I need a film to have a narrative for me to enjoy it. I watch movies looking for stories. Mr. Refn seems to have very different goals in mind. While I respect and admire his ambition, this film wasn’t for me.