As presented in The Neon Demon, the high-gloss, cut-throat setting of the Los Angeles modeling industry is populated with so many despicable, bluntly honest, unfeeling types who treat others like cattle in the worst way, there’s a question you have to ask: Why would any young woman armed with nothing more than a resume and a set of glossy portraits ever want to be a part of that world? And why subject themselves to such crushing, constant humiliation?
Here’s why. When you’re aware that you can’t sing, can’t act, possess no real talent, “But I’m pretty,” as young, aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning, who is pretty and can act) states, where else is someone with a desire for wealth, success and to always feel like a diamond in a sea of glass supposed to go? After all, the attention and the feeling of power over others that comes with it are so addictive.
Hyped as a horror, though more psychologically horrific than the kind of horror some audiences may consider traditional, The Neon Demon is an intentionally slow-paced, well designed peak into a brutal, unforgiving industry. Teenager Jesse has just arrived in L.A. and from practically the first moment, based on looks alone – there is no other requirement – she makes an impression. “You,” says model agency head, Roberta Hoffman (Christine Hendricks), “You’re going to be great.” This from the same woman who after a moment of silent consideration points and coldly tells another aspiring youngster with a folder waiting in her lobby for an interview, “You can go.”
Much to the obvious jealousy of others around her, Jesse is signed to the agency and test shoots with a professional photographer. “Isn’t she perfect?” asks make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone). Ruby appears as though she might be a friend to Jesse. No one else, particularly the vapid and emaciated Gigi (Australia’s Bella Heathcote) and the equally vapid and foul-mouthed Sarah (real-life Australian model, Abbey Lee) appear particularly friendly.
When Gigi asks a restaurant waitress what’s on the menu, Sarah asks, “Why? You’re not going to eat it.” “But they work so hard to memorize it,” Gigi states with such a condescending tone towards the waitress that you’re forced to ask another question. Why would the seemingly nice Jesse choose to socialize in the company of these awful people? The answer, of course, is simple. Given time, not to mention the success that seems to be coming her way, Jesse may ultimately be the same. When asked how it feels to always be noticed, Jesse replies, “It’s everything.”
With every frame of the film designed as perfectly as a glossy magazine photo-shoot, The Neon Demon will test your patience, and then some. Presented with a pacing suggesting the world moves in slow-mo backed by Cliff Martinez’s haunting, atmospheric synth score, there’s a sense that something predatory with claws is always lurking off screen, ready to pounce on Jesse and devour her, though, as we’ll later discover, the claws belong to those already seen.
Once the film’s slow-paced, dream-like rhythm is established, it’s not hard to realize that nothing in The Neon Demon resembles anything remotely like life or the behavior of those in the real world. When Jesse accidentally cuts the palm of her hand on a shard of broken glass in a dressing, instead of helping her, one of the models tries to suck the blood. And later, when Jesse hears the rape of a screaming and helpless girl in the next apartment, instead of calling the police, Jesse spends time listening with her ear against the wall, then finally calls her friend Ruby asking if she can come over for the night. And it gets worse. Once at Ruby’s place, the woman tries to seduce the obviously distraught and vulnerable Jesse into a night of lesbian sex. When Jesse dismisses Ruby, the woman – who doubles as a make-up artist for cadavers at a funeral home – makes out with a dead body on the slab while imagining how sex might have been with Jesse.
In the way that the cover of an inflated, ad-filled glossy fashion magazine is gorgeously compelling to the eye, so, too, is the look of The Neon Demon. From the opening credits where twinkling, shiny, gold particles fall like fairy dust in magical slow motion, an immediate tone of glossy attractiveness is set, but the beauty is what you expect and it’s an obvious, superficial one. So, too, is everything about the film. Director Nicolas Winding Refn may present his work as something he perceives as serious and artistic with a lesson to be learned – it’s certainly shot that way – but it feels like a sleek, silky and ultimately sick indulgence in personal, sexual fantasy bordering on the ridiculous. When two models shower together, like many other scenes, it’s filmed in pleasure-seeking slow-mo; the girls luxuriate in the cleansing of their bodies while the camera lingers and does the same.
There’s no real arc of a story, it’s delivering a message and it’s one so obvious as to be laughable; be careful where you tread, young lady – it’s a dog eat dog world in the L.A. modeling industry and the vapid and emaciated with claws and no discernable talent who ignore the food on a restaurant menu will be forever hungry.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 110 Minutes Overall rating: 3 (out of 10)