Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Neon Demon (2016)

I like to view this movie as Elle Fanning's version of her sister Dakota's The Runaways - a mature film coming on the cusp of her (hopeful) transformation from precocious child star to serious adult actress ("adult star" doesn't quite sound right), that is daring, edgy, and not a little bit sexy. Other movies in this vein include Emma Watson's The Bling Ring, and Spring Breakers - all featuring young women getting up to no good. This movie, however, steers more towards horror than any of those others, drawing parallels to the similarly introspective Black Swan, and, in hindsight, very appropriate comparisons to Dario Argento's Suspiria. The latter is evident in this film's stylistic idiosyncrasies. Working from a clever (if at times subtly written) script, writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn (whose name alone suggests that you've wandered down the rabbit hole) utilizes a confident command of his actors, as well as a swirling mixture of light, colors, and sound (including a very effective use of silence at all the right moments), to create a surreal cinematic experience that is profound and unsettling.

I have always thought that Elle was a bit "artsier" than her sister, and this choice of role bears that out. Compared to some of the other things I've seen her in over the last few years, this movie is much better than the quirky Twixt, and her role is far more central than it was when she took up the coveted mantle of a Disney Princess (Aurora) in Maleficent, a movie that insisted on shoving the princess aside in order to tell the villain's story. Here, in The Neon Demon, Elle is not only the lead, but the shining star around which the world seems to turn. Perfectly cast as a young, impossibly pretty girl named Jesse, who arrives in L.A. to try her hand at a modeling career, she must quickly learn to navigate the attentions of a protective boyfriend, a predatory landlord (Keanu Reeves, having a blast in what amounts to a minor role), and a pretentious fashion designer, while befriending a hypersensual makeup artist (Jena Malone) and her critical, self-absorbed modeling friends.

I have to admit, I was a little bit worried that this film would devolve into another dime-a-dozen cautionary tale about the clich├ęd dangers of the soulless modelling industry, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is instead an intelligent rumination on the power of Beauty (with a capital 'b'), and its effects on both those who have it, and those who want it. Case in point: there is a scene that seems to be setting itself up as a stereotypical case of model abuse, but turns out instead to be a poignant demonstration of the artistic process, whereby a creepy photographer is presented a ridiculous makeup job, surveys the canvas, and finds just the right way to turn it into a sublime work of art (that's professional genius right there). It's a brilliant scene that is marred only by the actress' conspicuous shyness about nudity, arguably managing to undermine the point it's trying to make - that concepts like "art" and "beauty" are primal, and do not subscribe to society's taboos (explaining how "pervy" photographers with talent can keep getting work).

Regardless, Jesse finds out that, rather than another lost angel on the road to ruin, she is a rare diamond in the rough, with an unparalleled, natural beauty that causes heads to turn everywhere she goes (did I mention that Elle was perfectly cast? :p) - and she is transformed by this intoxicating revelation. What, then, is the "Neon Demon" of the title? Is it the false lure of the power and prestige that the fashion industry uses to deceive and exploit the innocent? Or the girl who knows she is pretty, and understands the power she has because of it? I can't say for sure. Yet, I think this film does an excellent job of demonstrating that the girls we describe as "dangerous" because they are beautiful - the heartbreakers who can wrap men around their little fingers - are actually in a unique position of vulnerability, because, as beacons of desire, they will inevitably attract every predator on the block. I think that, if anything, the Neon Demon is a metaphor for envy, and the disgusting lengths to which it leads us in our quest to become the things we desire.


  1. I find your comparison to Argento incredibly apt. From the synthy soundtrack, to the blatant psychedelia, this movie was resoundingly classic (stylistically) and seemed like it should have come out in the 70s.

    The subject matter hit a little close to home for me but perhaps that's all the more proof of its worth.

    It was definitely a trip, both in the wild ride sense, and in the sense that i wish i had been on drugs when i watched it.

  2. I'm embarrassed to admit that I did not note the Argento comparison until I read it on the internet - but it is absolutely spot on.

    I like that this movie felt real. I mean, obviously, it's a fiction and a fantasy. But it approaches the issue of beauty in a no bullshit way. "Let us not talk falsely now".

    I am definitely going to have to buy it when it comes out on DVD and watch it again. Between this and The Witch - two movies in one year that I buy on DVD? That's pretty good.