Having seen it… yeah, that sounds about right.
Fresh-faced Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just arrived in Los Angeles to try her hand in the competitive and lurid world of modeling. Naturally blond, thin, and beautiful, the 16-year-old is told by her agency to tell people she’s 19 (as claiming to be 18 is too “on the nose”). She meets a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces her to other similarly blond, thin, and beautiful models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) and attempts to take her under her wing.
But Jesse doesn’t need much help, as she is quickly selected as the pièce de résistance to close out the fashion show of an important and selective designer. The more success she finds, the more the other models harbor their jealousy, and the more Jesse begins to buy into her own hype. Eventually, she leaves her seedy motel in Pasadena – populated by a hungry mountain lion and a dangerous likely-pedophilic manager (Keanu Reeves) – to join Ruby at the Hollywood Hills mansion where she’s apparently house-sitting. Ironically, she probably would’ve been safer with the mountain lion, as Jesse learns – quite literally – that pride comes before the fall.
Funnily enough, the audience I saw the movie with (a packed advanced press screening in West Los Angeles) didn’t boo, but – much to my surprise and befuddlement – laughed quite a bit. I can only assume it was nervous laughter, as there is nary a reason to crack a smile based on what I saw. What I saw was a gorgeous movie with incredibly brave performances (particularly from then-17-year-old Fanning), but one that is both violently bizarre and bizarrely violent. The letters themselves forming the actors’ names in the opening credits are literally dripping – possibly bleeding – as a hint of things to come. And if you didn’t notice that (it’s fairly subtle), the opening image is Jesse posing on a couch with makeup to look like her throat has been slit – establishing the violence, the danger, the voyeurism (in a movie dripping with male gaze, even when it’s a woman doing the gazing), and the perverse beauty.
I’ve always tried to be a champion for the “style as substance” crowd, arguing that visuals and narrative are inseparable and that a beautiful-looking movie can be forgiven for having a sparse story. It’s not even that The Neon Demon has a sparse story; it’s that the story is often secondary to the eye-popping visuals, however macabre and disturbing those visuals may be.
As a modern man who spends more than enough time on the internet, I fancy myself as someone who’s difficult to truly shock (because, really, what can Refn throw at me that the internet hasn’t already?). Turns out, plenty. There were more than a couple moments where I was clutching my pearls, mouth agape, eyebrow furrowed, whispering under my breath “what period the period fuck period.”
Let me put it this way: the MPAA – who I’ve always had problems with – gave this movie a (generous) R-rating for – among several other things – “a scene of aberrant sexuality.” They need a stronger word than “aberrant.”
This sounds a lot more negative than I want it to sound. I’m truly trying to avoid sounding like the guy pontificating about Fellini in Annie Hall (1977), but honestly, if you subbed out Fellini for Refn and La Strada (1954) for Drive (2011), his assessment is more or less fair. The movie is gorgeous and clearly very carefully-made, but – if I may completely contradict myself – to what end? To criticize the fashion world’s (and our) obsession with beauty, youth, vitality, and the female form?
Early responses from Cannes compared The Neon Demon to things like Mulholland Drive (2001). I can sort of see that; Jesse begins the movie in a similar place as Betty at the start of Mulholland Drive, and one of the supporting characters ends the movie in a similar place as Dianne at the end of Mulholland Drive. Plus, both movies deal with the seedy underbelly of a seemingly-glamorous industry; both are gorgeously directed and nightmarishly surreal; both are grounded by fantastic (and again, brave) performances from the whole cast but by the leading female in particular. But one thing about Mulholland Drive: it takes more than one viewing to truly appreciate. I can tell you with certainty that The Neon Demon is not nearly as good as the near-perfect Mulholland Drive, but that being said, I’m also fairly certain that Refn’s film will similarly reward multiple viewings.
If you’re paying close enough attention to some of the dialogue, the nightmare ending shouldn’t surprise you. Honestly, nearly every movie with a female protagonist and a female antagonist all seem to go this same route. And the ending actually sheds light on some (though not all) of the seemingly-random occurrences earlier on. Things you may raise your eyebrows at in the second act suddenly make you go “Ohhh, ok” in hindsight.
On the ovation-to-booing spectrum, I find myself closer to cheering than hissing. I feel like there’s a truly great movie hiding somewhere within The Neon Demon, and if you’re willing to follow Nicolas Winding Refn down the rabbit hole of beauty and depravity, maybe you’ll find it. I’ll say this for the movie: I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it.
That’s as much of an endorsement as I can comfortably give. But it’s still an endorsement.