A 16-year old girl (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles with the hopes of starting a modeling career. She is an instant sensation. However, she soon gets caught up not only traversing the business of modeling but also dealing with the ramifications of her beauty.
Only Skin Deep
First and foremost, this is a gorgeous, gorgeous picture. Every shot was meticulously lit and composed. Color, lighting, wardrobe, and hair/makeup are absolutely perfect.
I read an online interview with the director of photography Natasha Braier. She said that director Nicolas Winding Refn gave her a list of films to watch to give her an idea of the look and tone of the film he wanted her to shoot. The influences of Rosemary’s Baby, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and Clockwork Orange are clearly evident in this picture.
Refn instructed her to enter the project willing to push herself outside of her comfort zone. Despite the relatively small $5 million budget, he didn’t want her to be afraid to go over-the-top with the artistic design of the film.
Both visually and thematically, The Neon Demon can be split into two sections.
The first centers on Jesse (Fanning) as she begins her journey in the modeling industry. This portion of the film is heavy with blue hues throughout. The soft, cooler color appears to represent Jesse’s naivety.
As the plot progresses and Jesse evolves she becomes aware of the power of her appearance. Jesse has come to own the influence she gains from her sex appeal.
I would think this isn’t much different than the realization many girls come to when they hit puberty and begin to blossom physically. Boys take notice and begin to treat them with deference.
Additionally, the picture takes a decidedly violent and bloody tone at this point.
Beauty Isn’t Everything. It’s the Only Thing.
Ostensibly, this is a film about a young girl embarking on a modeling career. In reality, it is a study of beauty; both what it means to BE beautiful and what it means to WANT to be beautiful.
The film depicts its themes in a trippy, saturated, and dreamy manner in the same way that Harmony Korine‘s Spring Breakers does with its depiction of modern disposable culture. Both use a glossy hyper-reality to convey inner darkness.
Another film it reminds me of is Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan. It is another stylized examination of a young woman trembling from the pressure of embarking on a career. In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a ballerina locked in competition with a younger rival played by Mila Kunis.
In The Neon Demon, Fanning finds herself at deadly odds with two experienced models played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee. The pair intimidates her psychologically and physically. As Jesse’s confidence grows, the duo becomes more and more threatened by her success until they decide to take action.
On the Surface
The Neon Demon can be analyzed in multiple ways. One way is how it is. How it was constructed, the themes, soundtrack, etc…
Another way is what it is. By that I mean how does it rate as a straight movie, subtext and production elements aside. Is it a watchable film?
This is where audiences may divide.
I touched on the plot earlier:
Girl goes to big city to become a famous model. When she does, she runs afoul of jealous competition.
Save a couple scenes, the first half of the film is rather straightforward in following Jesse’s career.
The picture seems to pivot after a scene where Jesse is surrounded on each side by mirrors. She considers her image before kissing each one of them, in effect recognizing and accepting her sexual appeal.
From here on out the narrative becomes more abstract. Longs chunks of it do not contain dialogue.
A viewer looking for an easy watch my lose interest here. However, a viewer who is patient and thoughtful will be rewarded.
Personally, the film kept my attention throughout.
Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner
The picture is difficult to categorize.
Early on, it is similar to a 1960s melodrama, hence the Beyond the Valley of the Dolls reference earlier.
As tension builds and Jesse’s character blossoms, it could easily be described as a psychological thriller.
But then the third act arrives. Without spoiling anything directly, it features cannibalism and necrophilia of such order that it would make Ruggero Deodato blush. Remember what I said about going over-the-top?
This is a breathtaking and engaging study of the concept of beauty in the modern day. The film works as both a narrative and editorial. It begs to be debated and analyzed. It is easily the most stylish and mesmerizing films that I’ve seen in recent memory.
Toss in a supporting cast featuring Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks, and I don’t see how anyone would deny that The Neon Demon is the most intriguing film of the summer.
-Zep the Bear