"In fashion, one day you're in, and the next day you're out," cautions supermodel Heidi Klum in the reality-competition show Project Runway. Though that phrase is directed toward fashion designers, the same can be said of the cutthroat world of modeling at the center of Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film, The Neon Demon (2016). Co-written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, and playwright Polly Stenham, The Neon Demon has a firm grasp on competitiveness between women, and the milieu of the fashion industry allows for these rivalries to occasionally occur on superficial levels while remaining relevant and creating tension as the narrative reveals itself. Fashion is fueled by the desire to appear a certain way, and yet The Neon Demon is aesthetically pleasing while delivering much more than sensory pleasures.
What is always en vogue? Beauty, plain and simple. Jesse (Elle Fanning) has a wealth of natural beauty, and her appearance only benefits from her youth and naiveté. At the ripe age of seventeen, Jesse has recently moved from Georgia to California by herself and is living in a motel in Pasadena so that she can try to become a model in Los Angeles. Right from the start, she finds that she has an advantage over others – it's in her eyes, the way she walks, the way she composes herself... everything she does is enhanced by her looks. Further, it's more than just an advantage, it's power (in the most super, yet still natural, sense of the word). Naturally, this power comes with a price: jealousy from her peers. Ruby (Jenna Malone) is a makeup artist who indoctrinates Jesse into the social life of Los Angeles, which plants the seed for much of the tension that will manifest itself as the film progresses.
Deftly cast, The Neon Demon doesn't have a single character that feels out of place. Nuanced and easy to sympathize with, Elle Fanning manages to express a great deal of internal struggle with a blush or the raise of an eyebrow, and it's in keeping with Refn's penchant for quiet emoters as protagonists. However, this time around, the protagonist is bolstered with a script as accomplished as the aesthetic of the film. The supporting roles in The Neon Demon support the entire milieu that the film is set within (as they should in every film), and that's where Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote rise to the top. Lee and Heathcote have the difficult task of making dialogue of the most petty nature seem believable, and they relish in their wickedness. Many of their lines are a source of comedic relief, as they embody everything that is artificial in the fashion industry, and they pull it off without a wink. In a league of his own is Desmond Harrington, who portrays a fashion photographer with a shaved head named Jack. Jack's presence alone is discomforting in the few scenes he has – he's a man with a camera in a woman's world, but he makes it a man's world with his demeanor. Emotionless and stoic, he's one of many voyeurs in The Neon Demon, but one of the most difficult to read. From behind his camera, he is in control, and though we never see through his camera, the thought of the male gaze from his perspective is actively threatening.
Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier's approach to visually conveying The Neon Demon makes it one of the more cinematographically competent films set in and around the fashion industry. Many of Refn's regular stylistic tricks can still be found here, such as his Summer With Monika-esque lowering of lights in a theatrical manner to accent the emotions a character is experiencing. Beyond that, Refn and Braier are transliterating still photography techniques into the realm of moving pictures. Juxtaposing the human form against a solid black background, or against a white backdrop in a photography studio allows for the shape of the body to be isolated from elements that would otherwise distract from the subject. These backgrounds become negative space, as they are merely there to accentuate the presence of what is in the foreground. Compositions that evoke still lifes provide new ways to evaluate form, as in a scene where a group of models are spread across a room waiting to audition for a fashion designer's runway show. The placement of each model is very precise, and each provides a different perspective on the human form within the frame.
There's a moment near the end of the film where the narrative is effectively derailed, and the look of the film ostensibly becomes that of a fashion spread. With the roar of a convertible's motor, the narrative's baton has been passed on to two models who have been on the periphery of The Neon Demon's arc through much of the film, but now they have the spotlight. The energy of this sequence pours out of the screen as the sound and image dictate that the film can go anywhere – much like the car speeding along the west coast. Sure, The Neon Demon prior to this moment had an eye for capturing subjects in a way worthy of the world of fashion, but it was often at the service of depicting and dramatizing that environment. The violence of this transition (the whipping of wind and the revving of the car's engine) reawaken a film that hadn't even begun to grow tiresome. What follows is a conclusion of staggering beauty and grotesqueness, as logic is expelled from the film in favor of that which is utterly surreal. Phrases and imagery from earlier in The Neon Demon are all regurgitated in this scene with great tact, and the sum of these components and the reaction to it is rather ambiguous, but more importantly, it suggests perpetuation... If you can be "in" one day, what happens when you're "out"?
This is not merely a genre film, in fact it hardly conforms to a particular genre that could be categorized in such a way. The Neon Demon's strength comes from its heart (or the heart as a facade), and the film's moments of tension and horror are merely a texture in this satisfyingly off-kilter tale of dreams coming to fruition. Yes, there are a host of visual references to horror films (everything from taxidermied animals, as in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), to blood rushing toward the camera, as in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining), but those are merely allusions, and in the context of Refn's film, they take on a new meaning enabling them to stand on their own. Nicolas Winding Refn has, with The Neon Demon, a film that plays with expectations and manages to go to places that are unexpected yet artfully satisfying. Totally invigorating, Refn's foray into the "cinema of women" is fresh, confident, and fun, and that he manages to remain true to himself by crafting a film that will challenge audiences is beautiful.
My rating: 5/5