Sitting in a posh restaurant, a fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) declares that “beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” It may seem like a brash statement, at least to amateur photographer Dean (Karl Glusman), but in the world of The Neon Demon there is plenty of truth to his words. Beauty is the ultimate currency, one that many strive to attain, but only a few succeed in achieving. One of those fortunate individuals is 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning). An orphan who has come to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a model, Jesse’s carries that indescribable “something” that makes her the object of desire and jealousy for all who cross her path.
Unaware of the spell she seems to cast on others, or at least that is what the audience is led to believe at first, Jesse is simply happy to see her career moving in the right direction so quickly. Living out of a motel run by the lecherous Hank (Keanu Reeves), she not only becomes friends with a local esthetician named Ruby (Jena Malone); but also manages to sign with a modeling agency run by Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) and is given the opportunity to audition for both the top photographer and fashion designer in the business. Furthermore, things seem to be going well with her budding relationship with Dean. Despite the good fortune, not everyone is happy for Jesse’s success. Fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) are not only perturbed by the rookie’s rapid rise, but will do everything in their power to ensure that her blossoming career does not impact theirs in the process.
The Neon Demon may take the form of a salacious examination of the modelling world, but director Nicolas Winding Refn weaves a tale that aims for far greater social commentary than say Robert Altman’s fashion satire Prêt-à-Porter. Setting his dark and visually hypnotic story against the backdrop of a psychological thriller, Refn’s The Neon Demon is a captivating and disturbing look at our obsession with female beauty. Using the shallowness of the modeling world as a springboard into grander themes, Refn is not afraid to place the brunt of his visual tongue-lashing on the male gender. Jesse rarely encounters a man who does not gaze upon her with eyes that carry a mixture of awe and lust. The men are the tastemakers in the film, they are the ones who define beauty and, for the most part, control which women are deemed worthy enough to be part of their fashion world.
As if predators who feel it is their given right to pounce on the prey of their choosing, the audience cannot help but feel a little uneasy whenever Jesse is left alone with men like Hank or photographers such as Jack (Desmond Harrington). In one humorous moment, right after making the audience leer at the naked forms of Gigi and Sarah in the shower, Refn has Ruby turn her garden hose directly to the camera as if to cool down all those lustful men who do not view women as anything other than objects.
The women in the film do not come off much better mind you. Refn quickly establishes in the early frames of the film the ways women often define their own beauty in comparison to other women. Many of the scenes involving women talking to each other happen in front of mirrors. Similar to the abundance of triangle imagery, mirrors appear all throughout this film. Ruby’s first encounter with Jesse comes as she watches her through a mirror. It is as if Ruby is staring into a magic mirror, seeing everything she wishes she had in that one moment.
Refn plays out a similar scene later on when Gigi, the spokeswoman for plastic surgery, stumbles upon Jesse backstage at a premiere fashion show. He uses this moment, and several sections throughout the film, to take aim at those who view plastic surgery as the modern fountain of youth. When a baffled and annoyed Gigi discovers that Jesse is sitting in her makeup chair, she is quick to reclaim her perceived throne in front of that particular mirror. While Gigi proceeds to brag about the latest work she has had done on her body, the same work that no doubt got her a spot in the show, the symbolic fact that Jesse can effortless claim that seat is not lost on the audience. Refn punctuates this point further by having Jesse, in one of the captivating scenes where she embraces the dark power of her own beauty, give a sultry kiss to the reflections of her image on the runway.
While The Neon Demon tends to feel a tad longer than it is, the film is never dull. Outside of the strong performances from Elle Fanning and Jena Malone, who bring the most depth to any of the characters in the film, the real star of the film is cinematographer Natasha Braier. Incorporating a color palette that is both mesmerizing and eerie at the same time, Braier single-handedly makes every frame in the film pop. She continually keeps the proceedings interesting while making the audience contemplate the beauty of the film itself in relation to its content.
A challenging film that is easily Refn’s best work in years, The Neon Demon is a film that offers both style and substance. Of course, how much of the latter each viewer takes away from the film will no doubt be debated for years to come. After all, true beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.