Jessie, a 16-year old that has nobody to care for her, moves to Los Angeles to become a model. Her first photoshoot scores her an agency contract – and the entry to polished-to-perfection, glamourous high fashion world. Her little self-belief in own talents leads her to think that the only thing she can make money with is her looks – and her quick progress in the world of fashion gets her the attention from beauty-obsessed women who fight for the spotlight and eternal youth in The Neon Demon.
A typical story, isn’t it? We’re lead to believe it’s typical even more after the agency representative confirms it. But it’s not just a story of an LA dream of a small town girl. The build-up of the tension is truly incredible: the audience knows that there is certainly something wrong with everything that happens so quickly. Nobody believes that a massive success could come without paying a high price, and the suspicion grows as we’re confronted with new characters. The audience has nobody to confide in, which transmits the feelings of Jesse so convincingly and powerfully.
Neon-tinted, haute couture spectacles
The main character (Elle Fanning) is certainly far from the “demon” when we meet her: she’s pure, innocent, a little bit naïve. She’s being lifted up the ladder, dragged up with more outside force than she could control, and certainly more than she ever dreamed of – yet she enjoys the transformation, looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles (or neon-tinted, and perhaps from Prada). But behind the awareness of her own beauty, she hides insecurities – she holds the beliefs that she has never had any significant talent. And the film itself is a dispute about the beauty. We’re asked questions and presented with arguments, not only about the society’s obsession with being physically attractive, but also about beauty and youth being the only thing that the world strives for (dear Dostoyevsky, what the fudge have you started, and why do they reference you?! Also, anybody fancies a bit of Shakespeare? This film’s got that, too)
In one of the critical scenes, a model who had a lot of body work done is confronted with natural, fresh looks of Jessie – and her friend is asked who he finds more beautiful. His statement about “beauty on the inside” is dismissed by a trendsetter – and, to the surprise of her almost-boyfriend, by Jessie herself, who narcissistically believes that “she won’t be like them because they want to be her”. They would starve and suffer through plastic surgeries to never get what she was given by nature – and her lack of confidence turns into an admiration of the superficial. Comparisons to the story of female competition portrayed in Black Swan are fully earned, but this film pushes the boundaries even further.
Witchcraft, violence, vulnerability
The story wouldn’t be so powerful if it wasn’t for the acting. Elle Fanning creates a character that is wildly innocent, but also never really torn over the choices and conforming to what the others bring her and unaware of their intentions. Keanu Reeves creeps in during one of the scary scenes. Jenna Malone succeeds in creating her witchy, crazy make-up artist Ruby who is emotionally cold and truly sneaky. Both Bella Hearthcote and Abbey Lee Kershaw oppose Fanning’s characters with vulgarity and crudeness to the bone. These ladies create characters that would make it in Fear Factor – with their all-or-nothing approach, they would certainly win every episode and would be able to retire outside modelling, which would be slightly more ethical that the sequence of events that Nicholas Winding Refn introduces.
Visually delightful art-house cinema
The “Only God Forgives” director’s newest work is a piece of visually delightful art-house cinema. Amazing shots, neon colours and terror sequences out of the worst nightmare are contributing to the general feeling of the film. The cuts are well-timed, framing lets the story play with how you feel, and what you see certainly plays a big role in shaping the overwhelming tension throughout the film. So many symbols make your head spin – the mirrors reflecting the narcissism, a cougar breaking into Jesse’s motel room and the stuffed animals in Ruby’s mansion, the humiliation and the body-obsession of models stripped naked, witchcraft, the neon strobes highlighting all the perversity (necrophilia included) you can think of. But it has to be said – it’s all art, a massive revue of bestial beauty. It’s a statement. It’s cannibalism and evil sprinkled with glitter, but for a purpose. It confronts the values to make you think how far one lies from the other, and what lengths people would go to be what the society desires. Also, the music is an integral part of this image – it should be highlighted as a classic horror film score, intensifying what we see. It reminds of (far less flashy) The Falling, released last year – where the sound also was of the essence, alongside the accompanying ambiguous witchcraft-infused coming-of-age story.
You’ll be feeling the growing unease as you try to read through this film. Overwhelming pressure, a strong crudeness game, and the lowest human instincts are unleashed slowly, step by step, transforming the characters or revealing their real motives. Surreal and chaotic, the film nauseates, repulses and creeps out, but also forces you to look through a kaleidoscope of the images that paint society’s pursue of perfection – with a very understandable definition and symbols that make this dizzy pageant of debauchery a huge question mark for human nature.