“Neon Demon” (2016)
Running Time: 117 minutes
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Featuring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Karl Glusman, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves
Roberto Sarno: “True beauty is the highest currency we have. Without it, she would be nothing.”
Dean: “I think you’re wrong.”
Roberto Sarno: “Excuse me?”
Dean: I said, I think you’re wrong.
Roberto Sarno: “So are you gonna tell me that it’s what’s inside that counts?”
Dean: “Yeah, that’s exactly what I think.”
Roberto Sarno: “Well I think, that if she wasn’t beautiful… you wouldn’t have even stopped to look.”
Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to “Only God Forgives” (2013) seems to be his comment on Hollywood, stardom and what this does to people at all levels of society in Los Angeles. How successful he is at it in this film is up for debate, with many viewers either loving or hating it. One thing is clear and that is like all his films it at least looks fantastic and viewers are rewarded who see it on the big screen. When I watched this film I was ready to be let down from the early word from last years Cannes Film Festival – however I am a fan of horror, particularly when it attempts to comment on art and commerce. I did like this film, but if i were to recommend a film that tackles a similar subject in a more straight forward with a lot less flash I would watch “Starry Eyes” (2014).
“The Neon Demon” is centrally about sixteen-year-old aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) who has just moved from small-town Georgia to Los Angeles. At her first photoshoot she meets makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces fellow older models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). The three women are intrigued by Jesse’s natural beauty, as well as curious about her sexual prowess which she lies about.
Jesse gets signed by Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), the owner of a modelling agency, who tells her to pretend she is nineteen and refers her to a test shoot with a notable photographer, Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington).
Jesse goes to a casting call for fashion designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola), where Sarah is also present. He pays no attention to Sarah but is entranced by Jesse. A distraught Sarah flees into a bathroom and shatters the mirror with anger and when Jesse enters, Sarah asks her how it feels to be the one who everyone admires. Jesse admits, “It’s everything.” From this point the narrative which has been more of a drama turns into something completely different, which you can find out for yourself.
As is the case with all of Refn’s films it looks amazing, I cannot help but think that Refn enjoys making movies more than the actual end product – for him it seems that the journey is most of the fun. As his films have progressed over the year the plot and narrative of his oevre seems to be less important than the feel and look of the film itself – he is becoming a true post-post modern filmmaker. For him the medium is much more important than the message – which I think may be a legitimate comment given the kind of films Hollywood has become known for, he is not even trying for a coherent plot.
I cannot help but feel that as Refn’s career has made him become more avant-garde he is trying to out do himself with each subsequent movie – to my mind his best and more plot and narrative friendly is the Ryan Gosling “Drive” (2011) which should have received more attention than it did. And maybe the answer for Refn has been that last two films. I have to admit it would be a shock for Refn to actually make a more traditional film – however I would really enjoy that, and I cannot help but think it would also rejuvenate his career somewhat.
Refn is know for being collaborative with his actors and that explains why he always has top talent in his movies, here he has Elle Fanning, in her first real adult role, but to me while she is playing an ingénue here it rings a little hollow for this particular actress. The stand out for me is the always-undervalued Jena Malone in a femme fatale role that shows a real range. Malone has been around for years and makes anything she is in the better for it, particularly when there are weaknesses in the films she appears in.
As for the movie itself I really believe that this is for fans of this type of almost surreal work. I think it does get mired in self importance and Refn seem to be showing off a little but viewers may enjoy this. There is a huge element of horror and grand guignol but by now this should be expected form a film about a woman being seduced then swallowed up (literally)!
- audio commentary with Director Nicolas Winding Refn and Elle Fanning