A beautiful model reclines on an ornate couch. She is motionless, illuminated by lurid coloured lighting that highlights the blood that has poured from her neck and around her. The camera pulls back, revealing it is all a set, a photo shoot. Welcome to the world of the Neon Demon.
The model in question is the wide-eyed Jesse (Elle Fanning), who has moved to Los Angeles hoping to break into the world of modelling. Her journey will take her through a mire of jealous models, predatory designers and lustful photographers, all of whom value her in different ways but all for the same thing: her beauty.
Neon Demon is a celebration and a denouncement of narcissism. The characters in the film are all out solely for themselves and not Karl Glusman) is left by the wayside as she starts to make an impression in the industry. When she firsts visits an agent (Christina Hendricks) who tells her to lie and say she is 19 rather than 16, NAME asks her if anything was said about his photos. She tells him no, dismissively.
Established models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (real-life supermodel Abby Lee) are first sneering, then threatened, then in the wake of Jesse’s rise. A paedophilic motel owner (Keanu Reeves) positively drools over her while apparently-friendly make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) is clearly wanting Jesse for herself.
Refn has always been a strong visual stylist in his previous films, from the desaturated landscapes of Valhalla Rising through to the unbalanced frames of Drive and the colour-soaked seediness of Only God Forgives. This film sees another string to the bow as he melds fading Hollywood glamour with high-end fashion stylings. The photo shoot and fashion show settings means he and his DOP Natasha Braier can go wild with striking looks and set-pieces and this is where Neon Demon truly shines.
Recurring visual motifs like the use of the colour red for threat and endless mirrors to show the characters’ self-absorption underlie the themes, but this is also where the film struggles somewhat. Like much of Refn’s previous work, most notably Bronson, Neon Demon makes its point fairly early and then just tends to repeat it in more extreme ways over the running time. With no real sympathetic characters (Fanning’s Jesse starts of vapid and becomes more selfish from there) and a simplistic plot, the subtext is not strong enough to keep up for the whole movie and proceedings resort to shock value by the end.
Nevertheless, the superb visuals and terrific score by Cliff Martinez are hugely memorable. It is a beautiful film with a potent message, but its thin premise is stretched to breaking point and its mean spirit may well put it in the ‘love it or hate it’ bin.
The only extra is an audio commentary featuring director Refn and star Fanning, which is breezy and relaxed throughout. Refn’s main focus is on the budget, revealing the desperate efforts to save money at every turn. He also tells how the film had no storyboards, which is surprising for such careful visuals.
Fanning, for her part, is clearly thrilled to be doing her first ever commentary track and talks of being only 16 when filming began. This caused trouble with the hours she was allowed to work and also with distributors who thought her age may restrict what her character would be able to do.
Overall, the track is both informative and entertaining and a worthy addition to the release.