Title: The Neon Demon
Country: USA, France, Denmark
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn
Music: Cliff Martinez
Cinematography: Natasha Braier
Danish tastemaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s tenth feature film, THE NEON DEMON premiered in Cannes earlier this year as an entrée of the main competition and was met with mostly negative feedback, which inveighs against Refn’s self-indulgence in his aesthetic choice and flagrantly macabre themes, it is the second time, Refn’s work has been booed in Cannes, the previous misadventure is ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013), so he seems to stride on the same auteur-to-provocateur path preceded by his compatriot Lars von Triers.
The film starts as a conventional tale about a parentless,16-year-old girl Jesse (Fanning) from Georgia, comes to L.A. in pursuit a modeling career, stays in a scruffy motel run by an objectionable manager Hank (Reeves). She befriends an amateur photographer Dean (Glusman), who takes her first photoshoot in the prescient opening scene. Jesse is approached by the makeup artist Ruby (Malone), whose first-line is “you have beautiful skin”, and later they go to a party, Jesse is introduced to two stuck-up professional models Sarah (Lee) and Gigi (Heathcote), who take her for granted being a wide-eyed rookie, but Jesse is born to be the cynosure, and Ruby knows it (with an ulterior motivation). What Refn hammers home here is Jesse’s youthful, “it” girl, star-on-the-horizon quality, which might sound like an overstatement, but effectively channels Fanning to bring about a resolute personality transmutation from an unworldly next-door-girl to a paragon of narcissist garnished by haute couture and skin-deep make-up.
But things turn perilous and hallucinating pretty soon, a panther surreally appears in her motel room, a neon-lit triangle motif repeatedly invades her dreams, peer pressure starts to encroach her unwarranted success where jealousy and intimidation lurks around, and her relationship with Dean also hits a dead end after she is chosen to close the show of celebrated fashion designer Robert Sarno (Nivola, uncredited in a facile character), where she finalizes her a-phoenix-is-born rite-of-passage under the trippy delirium of a triangle prism. At that point, she achieves what she always wants, but what distinguishes her from the rest bevy of young girls? Her unsullied countenance, her physical pliability, or her unfeigned rawness? In a business entrenched in immediate and eye-pleasing attractiveness, the strain of perpetually in danger of being sidelined, is so deleteriously consuming, it poisons one’s body, twists one’s psyche, and pervert one’s impulse, what happens next is a startling manifestation of Refn’s polemic on that business, a friend-in-need call to Ruby, will invite Jesse to a sepulchral residence, and fall prey of cannibalistic predators who are coveting her success, where lesbianism, slasher, gore, occultism and necrophilia altogether served to shock and provoke.
Not everyone can stomach all the perversity on the face value, which certainly explains the polarized reactions and its limited box-office potential, but if you can overcome the knee-jerking uneasiness, the picture will eventually emerge itself as a visually-striking, conceptually-challenging treatise taking no prisoners in disclosing what an insider must endure in face of this cut-throat line-of-job, and further tees off on its superficial, pernicious viewpoint in regard to the whole human society and gender politics, although, if Refn can temper its female-skewing emphasis with a dash of male involvement (some comeuppance should have justly befallen to those heartless snobs with a middle leg too), the film itself could be shaped into a more well-grounded equilibrium.
Fanning’s strong presence aside, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee all give transfixing turns in this mythic horror, Heathcote’s Gigi is a surgery-altered commodity, an icy facade yet inwardly she is the weakest after ingesting something she shouldn’t; Malone leaves us flabbergasted in her bold move when moonlighting in the morgue, she has the most tactile sexual urge among all the characters, yet, she also retains a mist of impenetrability which is uncannily vampiric. But the most incredible work is achieved by Lee, the former Victoria’s Secret model, her Sarah is unpicked to be starkly alien both in her make-up free states and in the final sequences, a robotic being with a futuristic get-up, a slinky figure projects that bone-chilling gaze, resembles a soulless husk of human, why would anyone be willing to get to that point is perplexing, but THE NEON DEMON itself is an unconventional cautionary tale unabashedly suckles on Nicolas Winding Refn’s colorblind disposition to thrives with glossy, variegated sheen, its content is not wholly salutary, but tantalisingly panders to those who always keep an open mind to something idiosyncratic and contentious.