The Neon Demon is an aesthetic masterpiece. Bedecked in occult symbolism and dark satirical hyperbole, Nicolas Winding Refn dresses up the overworked cliché of a model’s plight for perfection as an anxious, oscillate thriller, blinding us with obscene neon colours, neurotic light sequences conjoined with pulsating sonics pitched at an uncomfortable volume. It flaunts ferocity, yet trembles with the vulnerability of its abstract subject: beauty.
Beauty becomes the protagonist. You understand this film through its unapologetic, blunt use of metaphors. Its focus is the modern consumption of beauty, therefore beauty consumption will be delivered. Everything is literal. In the opening scene, we witness new blood, Jesse, (Elle Fanning), decorated with diamante crystals, glitter and…blood. Her fresh innocence is represented in the blood, and is cleaned, or rather purged, by the character Ruby, (Jena Malone), in a delicate interplay filmed between two mirrors. It is intricate, intimate, and entirely style over substance, the shot as fragile as the omnipotent protagonist.
“Are you food or are you sex?” is followed by “who are you f***ing?” Refn’s neurotic narrative is founded in the carnality of its characters, their one-track trope to achieve greatness by ‘mucking’ (or f***ing) into the nitty-gritty of what it means to be ‘perfect’ promoting acts that surpass human convention. Prepare for revulsion of the necrophilic, cannibalistic variety, The Neon Demon promotes Elaine Scarry’s hypothesis that our obsession with the aesthetic makes us want to replicate, ‘make love’ and consume beauty, though it removes the intellectual euphemisms. This is a film of fundamentals, but more than that, visuals.
There is an awful lot of looking in The Neon Demon, vanity and voyeurism vindicating Jesse, symptomatic of the industry, infecting its participators to the point of insanity. The brutality of the modelling world is revealed in the double impetus of its ‘manufacturers’: to admire, but also to criticise, under-wear clad females strutting to averted eyes, leaving them peripheral and desperate. It unsettles, which the scriptwriters exploit through a predatorial metaphor actualised by a wildcat trespassing in Jesse’s rented room and the gun-wielding misogynistic apartment manager (Keanu Reeves). Subtlety is discarded for unapologetic symbolism, which could be defined as ground-breaking if you ignore the cliché it is built upon.
This is my issue with The Neon Demon: at its rotting core is also a plot of sour milk. Jesse’s love-interest, Dean, a moralistic photographer, is discarded for the “diamond in a sea of glass” success that Jesse achieves, her beauty dumbfounding and factionalising those closest to her. Stardom propels her, levitates her and then…well, let’s just say, what goes up must come down. We know the narrative well, because it is age-old. Once you remove the diamond-dark distractions, the so-called ‘ground-breaking’ bones of The Neon Demon are exposed to be brittle with age and over-use.
The Neon Demon is an aesthetic masterpiece, but little else. It is a postmodern statement undermined by its clichéd core, though the realisation of beauty as substance-less is paralleled in the lack of enjoyment the film inspires, which ironically renders it a success for Refn. Pretty to look at without much else. A ruthlessly scathing depiction as a result. The purpose of The Neon Demon is achieved.