I watched this movie on the weekend as a part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, and I’m still not sure how I felt about it. I don’t know if I liked it but I’m glad I saw it; I don’t know if I’d call it a good film but it sure was memorable. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is a thriller/horror set in the glossy, empty fashion world of LA and stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, a fresh-faced teenager barely in her sixteenth year who moves to the city hoping to start a modelling career. She stays in a dodgy hotel overseen by the bearded, seedy and surprisingly menacing Keanu Reeves and makes friends with Ruby (Jena Malone), a seemingly sympathetic make-up artist. Soon, Jesse’s vulnerable milk-and-roses beauty and that intangible “It” quality that all the surgery in the world can’t buy makes a splash on the scene and invites the envy of the two very bitchy, very plastic-looking models (Bella Heathcoate and Abbey Lee).
This may sound like there’s a story going on, but none of this adds up to much plot-wise, and almost no one in the movie acts like a real human being either. I also have no clue if the director intended to say anything with this movie other than the obvious stuff like, “fashion industry is bad and exploitative”, “beauty is powerful”, “LA corrupts the innocents” etc. etc. The film is best seen as a macabre, surreal, quite silly and utterly fabulous-looking exercise in pure style, with a chilly aesthetic that brings to mind Stanley Kubrick, full of beautiful, hypnotic imagery, complemented by a pulsating soundtrack. Its moments of violence and horror are often so over-the-top that the entire theatre frequently burst into laughter (I wonder if the fact that it screened at the Comedy Theatre might have contributed to the reaction). Apart from Kubrick, I was also reminded of David Lynch, Aronofsky’s Black Swan and weirdly enough Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.
Other than being utterly stunning, Elle Fanning makes for a sympathetic protagonist before Jesse predictably embraces her narcissism in the second half of the film and ditches her innocent flowy dresses for a flimsy sparkly top with a neckline that stops at her midriff. I never noticed before how asymmetrical her face is, a quirk that only adds to the appeal (beauty in imperfection and all). Abbey Lee, who played one of the escaped wives in Mad Max: Fury Road, is also memorable; there’s not much to her character but she has a spooky intensity here that’s rather mesmerising. Which could be said about the movie as a whole I guess.