Jesse (Elle Fanning) begins a career in modeling, young and naive. She moves to Los Angeles where, all alone, she is adopted by three women who also compete for jobs in the model industry. They become jealous of Jesse’s success and their own failings, and drag Jesse down into a nightmarish world of power games and obsession with beauty.
Young and innocent Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles, ready to start her modeling career. The people she encounters, the agent who recruits her (Christina Hendricks) and the fellow models (Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), all radiate an aura of predation towards her. She becomes successful as much through her naiveté and vulnerability as through her beauty. The three veteran models adopt her as a friend, but they are more interested in devouring her beauty and initiating her into an emotionally disturbing world where beauty is everything and becomes a source of both power and despair. Meanwhile, she tries to build a normal relationship with a decent man who sees beyond the surface appearance (Karl Glusman), but the seduction of beauty and power has started her on an inevitable transformation into an object of veneration. The jealousy of three models mounts to unendurable intensity.
The Neon Demon is the new movie by director Nicholas Winding Refn, who wants to be known by name like Quentin Tarantino, and so pastes himself all over the movie titles. His style is characterized by a heavy focus on artistic visuals, on moods, lighting and lingering stares, and less on dialogue. He achieved critical success with Drive (2011), then produced Only God Forgives (2013) which got a lukewarm reception, and now wants to dazzle the world again with a new feature. NWR, as he also names himself, can be justly proud of The Neon Demon. He created an intense and visually stunning movie, with tense moments of soft horror reminiscent of Black Swan (2010) and a memorable blend of sight and sound. It is like stepping into an art project that studies the interplay between color and the human form.
The movie is a modern day retelling of vampirism and witchcraft, complete with references to virginity and moon-worship, innocence and corruption. But this is a mixture that we haven’t seen before, with neon colors, pulsating electronics and psychedelic nightmares. The style feels coherent, living and tantalizing. Style, however, is what makes most of the film. The story is slim and a bit slow, not much more than a fairy tale stretched out, and the characters are simple. It is a story of premonitions; references to predators, especially big cats, are everywhere. One photoshoot in particular, a most uncomfortable photoshoot where the camera shots sound more like gun shots, has more in common with a cat and mouse game. The photographer the cat, playing with a mouse, Jesse, and it is no fun.
The camera doesn’t exactly linger on female beauty, but it portrays the emotional world of the models. This is an intense world of colors and compositions that portrays the heavy emotions and obsessions. It is the men in the model industry who gaze, who size up the models in front of them like pieces of meat, and dole out value or rejection on a whim. Get lost in this world and your sanity is on the line. The cabal of the three models around Jesse all deal with beauty in different ways. They try to absorb beauty, ingest it, or modify their bodies, but they fight and hurt themselves, either bodily or in spirit.
Emotionally, this is a cold world without human connection, but red and white feelings of paranoia and power are everywhere. Elle Fanning is a great casting choice because she seems so vulnerable and inexperienced. At the start, she is unshaped, like clay. She doesn’t know who she is or what she will become. Her transformation is at once empowering and tragic.
The Neon Demon is equally mesmerizing, tense and uncomfortable. It is a visual feast, a carnival and a nightmare at the same time. There isn’t much of a story, but it is still one of the more unique films of the year and will linger in you for the rest of the day, if not the week.