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The Neon Demon – Review


Release Date: 24 June 2016 [USA]
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn [Story] - Nicolas Winding Refn - Mary Laws - Polly Stenham [Screenplay]
Cast: Elle Fanning - Christina Hendricks - Keanu Reeves



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Posted July 18, 2016 by

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The Neon Demon Review:

A beautiful nightmare set in the bruising world of the LA modelling scene, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest offering is like feasting on a delicious Champagne truffle, only to find a maggot buried in the centre. While the movie’s tagline is ‘beauty is vicious’, it could be argued that The Neon Demon is more concerned with the transient and indefinable nature of beauty, and the allure of youth and innocence.

Having drawn inevitable comparisons with Aronofsky’s Black Swan (and there is certainly something reminiscent of Requiem for a Dream in the sense of terror which pervades the quieter, more mundane moments), and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, this is a divisive film that seems to both condemn and glamourise the high-end fashion industry.

Elle Fanning is Jesse, a doe-eyed girl from Georgia, newly arrived in LA whose parents are no longer around. It’s never made clear exactly where they are, but as the narrative progresses, their fate seems increasingly sinister. While creating a portfolio with aspiring photographer, Dean (Karl Glusman), Jesse meets make-up artist Ruby (a wonderfully unhinged Jena Malone) who is clearly infatuated with her from the off. Ruby takes Jesse to a party and introduces her to catty models Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), who immediately sniff her out as a threat. As Sarah succinctly and aptly puts it in a later scene, “why have sour milk when you can have fresh meat?”

Jesse is quickly signed to a modelling agency by Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) who tells her she will be great in spite of the schlocky murder scene shots Dean has taken, but also warns her that while she think Jesse is perfect, others might call her fat. Jesse is advised to lie about her age, bumping it up from only just turned sixteen to nineteen. And so the scene is set. From the seemingly benign but unsettling Ruby to Keanu Reeves’ sleazy motel manager with an eye for ‘hard candy’, virginal Jesse – all flaxen hair, luminous skin, and soft pink parts – is a baby tetra in a shark tank.

Neon Demon Review

As she comes to understand and revel in the power her untouched youth and loveliness wields, Jesse loses her wide-innocence, as well as Dean, the only person who seems to genuinely have her best interest at heart, and begins to play with fire in the pursuit of success.

The idea of gazing and the pleasure of looking at things we shouldn’t enjoy looking at is prevalent in this movie. From the opening shots of Jesse lying on a couch with fake blood oozing from her pretty neck, to the panoramic views of Los Angeles by moonlight, to the intimate sweep of a glitter-loaded brush applying make-up to a peachy cheek, we are forced to linger and cannot help but be captivated by what we see. Mirrors are everywhere, and Jesse tells love-struck Dean that the moon is like a big eye watching them back. Even after the film’s violent climax, a single eye serves as a witness, a reminder of the abominable act that has taken place.

While much has been made of the Grand Guignol ending, The Neon Demon seems to borrow from a wide range of sources. Italian horror, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, and the vampiric legend of Countess Bathory all leave their bloody footprints. Jesse comments at one point that women would kill to look like her, and that they do carve and slice and stitch themselves in order to achieve a second rate version of what she has. Indeed, it’s well established the language of cosmetic surgery and the language of butchery cross over all too easily. The marriage of sex and death, of beauty and horror, is underscored in the extreme when Ruby – make up artist to the living and dead – engages in a sexual act with a corpse after Jesse rejects her advances. While this scene was understandably deemed a bridge too far for some critics, I think within the context of a horror movie littered with occult symbolism and mysticism, it can be viewed as a deliberate act of transgression. A point of no return. If she can’t have the young, vital Jesse in the way she longs for, Ruby will take her pleasure from death. If she can’t thaw her in life, she will consume her warmth and leave her cold remains to the earth.

For Sarah and Gigi, the cannibalistic finale represents a desire to restore their own fading power, and to imbibe the magical properties they believe Jesse to possess. While Gigi’s self-destruction reminds us of the fleeting nature of such things, Sarah’s perfect lip curl and ingestion of the last scraps of Jesse are both a comment on the ruthless nature of the beauty business, and a playful nod to the fairy tale roots of Jesse’s demise.

Neon Demon Star

And it must be said, with its candy colours, glitter showers, pulsing lights, hazy sunsets and blistered vistas, this film looks more than good enough to eat. Every bit as polished as the world it seeks to critique, The Neon Demon is a nightmare dressed like a daydream. The gauzy boundaries between day and night, waking and dreaming, reality and fantasy, along with the pounding soundtrack, create a hypnotic fearscape that is every bit as seductive as it is terrifying.

Fanning’s lead turns from saccharine to chilling effortlessly, and Jena Malone turns in a truly fearless performance as Ruby. Heathcote and Lee are both deliciously bitchy and tangibly damaged, while Reeves is almost unrecognisable as Jesse’s menacing landlord. There’s also a nice turn from Desmond Harrington as an icy photographer who holds all the cards but barely says a word.

Those looking for cut and dried answers will be disappointed. Seemingly threatening situations turn out to be benign enough, and real danger comes in surprising packages. And if you need someone to root for, this is not the movie for you. No one comes out of it well. Not even the viewer, as we are constantly made complicit in the debauchery unfolding before us. But if you’re prepared to have the mirror turned on you, this is certainly an interesting and oddly thrilling way to spend two hours.


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Katie Young
Katie Young – Author
Freelance Contributor

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