Beauty and style are two words that immediately come to mind with writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” for both good and bad reasons. The film starring Elle Fanning and Jena Malone comes off as extremely egotistical with style overcoming substance. Although the film does try to come off as a satirical attack on the modeling industry and our concepts of beauty itself. This point is muted with several bizarre and questionable scenes where bright neon lights and over-stylized symbolism cloud the message.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a fresh young girl of 16 arriving on the L.A. fashion scene. She is beautiful, innocent and pure, for how long? The film opens with her at a somewhat foreshadowing photoshoot where she lies dead sprawled out on a couch covered in blood. Afterwards, she has help wiping the fake blood off with the older and more experienced make up artist Ruby (Jenna Malone). Ruby admires he beauty and they quickly become friends. They go to parties and mingle with a few other experienced models, Sara and Gigi, who are obviously jealous of Jesse. After years of modeling and the constant threat of newer, younger faces and bodies, Jesse is just another threat.
Jesse has a meeting with an agency and although she is really only 16, they just fudge the papers and have her say she is 19. She gets invited to do a test shoot with a highly sought after photographer named Jack. Jack is a stereotypical photographer. He is an intense, intimidating and demanding of his models. He closes the set so its just the two of them and in no time, Jesse is nude. Although Jack does not come off as a sleazy perv, a professional artist pushing the boundaries of his craft. The shoot leaves Jesse with a sense of confidence and power not to mention covered in gold paint.
Jesse lives in a low rent motel run by Hank (Keanu Reeves) and after coming home one night finds an intruder in her room in the form of a mountain lion. Whether this is supposed to be a metaphor or just something that happens in L.A. I’m not completely sure, but needless to say Jesse is freaked out. She starts dating a photographer, Dean, from her first shoot (the one with the blood). He is about 25 or so and is by all outward appearance a pretty good dude. As Jesse quickly climbs the local modeling ladder, things get a little more intense and we begin to see some changes in her attitude. She is well on her way to becoming a neon demon.
When things get a little rough Jesse runs to Ruby who has her own plans for her. Ruby has had a thing for her ever since they met and when she finally makes a pass at her, Jesse freaks out and tosses her aside. Ruby then really starts to lose her shit. She also works at a morgue applying makeup to cadavers when her deepest fantasies for Jesse gets a little carried away and she ends up defiling that poor corpse. Jesse’s ultimate fate is a little anti-climactic and the 3 women go all medieval on her ass and consume her beauty both literally and figuratively.
Winding Refn referred to his film as a “ceremonial celebration of narcissism” and used a lot of artificial visuals to make things feel more synthetic and fake. He takes the age old story of the pretty young girl going off the Hollywood to follow her dream and in the end being unfulfilled (and dead). The basic story structure is nothing new, but the visual style and the always wonderful Elle Fanning make this film something to check out. If you have Amazon Prime it is currently streaming for Free. Amazon Studios was also involved in the distribution of the film.