Jesse (Elle Fanning) is alone in the world. With nothing and no-one to worry about, she moves to Los Angeles to seek fame and fortune as a model. However Jesse possesses the two things guaranteed to provoke jealousy within the elite fashion world – innocence and beauty. Blessed with these attributes it’s inevitable that she soon comes to the attention of modelling super-agent Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks), whose stable of beautiful girls will stop at nothing to acquire Jesse’s alluring vitality, no matter what the cost.
I have an admission to make. I know critics should, as far as possible, remain unbiased, giving level-headed arguments both for and against a film’s legitimacy. However, where The Neon Demon (2016) is concerned, I have no qualms in coming down heavily in its favour combining, as it does, three of my favourite subjects – horror, fashion and L.A. – in a mix of multi-hued savagery.
I must say that up until I saw The Neon Demon, I was not a fan of its writer / director Nicholas Winding Refn. Ok, so I’d only seen one of his previous works, namely the 2011 crime / drama Drive which I disliked intensely: I’m all for ultra mayhem when the storyline calls for it, but where that particular film was concerned its fixation with, and the intensity of, some of its more violent scenes (and yes I do mean the one in the lift) were a step too far. Which is an odd criticism you may say, when I claim to love The Neon Demon, a psychedelic psycho experience that’s tripped out brutality rivals anything seen before from a director not renowned for his restraint when pushing on-screen depictions of violence to the limit.
The Neon Demon works so well though, because many of it’s most disturbing aspects do not derive from its onscreen depiction of gore and violence. Don’t get me wrong, when the carnage sets in, as mentioned before, it does so with an unbridled intensity which has become the hallmark of work by the deceptively benign looking, bespectacled Refn. As with so many films which play heavily on their visuals, it would be unfair to disclose too much detail surrounding the more graphic scenes. Suffice to say though that Refn and his team behind the camera have brought together a world of throbbing, pulsating beauty, which only serves to intensify the horror when it does appear: the high octane, neon drenched fashion shows and parties at which the various characters meet and mingle; the muted, washed out L.A. through which the same said people drift by day; the empty swimming pools and deserted mansions – wallowing in shabby chic and futuristic, glass and chrome soullessness – where many of the plot’s most shocking twists take place.
Strange and hypnotic elements aside, it is the film’s depiction of the shallow worlds of modelling and fashion – where you’re only of interest as long as you remain outwardly flawless – which is most unsettling. Several well-known faces – including Hendricks and Kneau Reeves – give commanding yet brief appearances. However it is Fanning who stands out, as the initially guileless Jesse who arrives in L.A. alone, eager to embark on a career in front of the camera. Her depiction of the young, wide-eyed innocent, who morphs into a hardened vision of her old self as her vitality and youthfulness are slowly drained by various fashion world parasites, is one of the film’s most memorable yet unnerving aspects.
In the usual advance publicity which has seeped out in the run up to the film’s release, much has been made of apparent ‘vampire’ like qualities of certain characters within it. Whether these are real (or as real as ‘vampirism’ can be) or a metaphor for the fashion and celebrity culture which engulfs cities like L.A., feeding off the fresh and unspoilt, is left open to the viewer’s interpretation. Its climatic scenes however leave you in little doubt that something unnatural is occurring, and that those at the pinnacle of the fashion world are, without doubt, an odd, bitchy bunch, ready to bleed dry anyone or anything which will get them where they want, and help them stay there.
Cleaver Patterson (@Cleaver68 / @ScreenAndGone)