The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn is the type of filmmaker that upon exposure to his oeuvre can infect you. It is strange in its narrative style and visually stunning those no sooner than you discover you are a fan you will make the concerted effort to become fully immersed in all of his work. His work as a director and screenwriter so as to attempt to glean some modicum of understanding as to the hidden meanings and subtle messages infused with complexed imagery that permeates the entity of the story controlling every aspect. One surprising element germane to his stylistic origins is Mr. Refn is colorblind, specifically unable to differentiate mid-colors resulting in one of the most significant techniques of polarizing fundamental features of the narrative through polarization. For his latest opus considered here, ‘Neon Demon,' Mr. Refn challenges the audience to accompany him of the deconstruction of the societal demands on the current established standards of beauty. The stage he uses to conduct his exploration of this theme is the scared temple of fashion. There the nubile young goddess is trained to serve their master until the vagaries of their ephemeral usefulness inexorably fade like the morning mist. The resulting opus that sprang from these parameters was ‘Neon Demon,' a tautly crafted psychological horror. Of the plethora of styles available to the filmmaker hoping to mark his mark as a new Master of Horror, the one chosen by Mr. Refn is undoubtedly one of the most difficult to master. Depending on the audience’s interpretation of highly nuanced imagines to the subtext of the story’s narrative is a dangerous course for even a seasoned storyteller. Throughout his career, Mr. Refn has been honing his ability to do just that. His use of powerful albeit often ambiguous imagery that is conducive to interpretation by the viewers. Like any good example of artistic expression, the creator of piece opens the depths of his imagination guiding by not forcing the audience to a conclusion.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a sixteen-year-old aspiring model. In her small town home in Georgia Jesse was consider one of the beautiful girls in the region. To further her dream, Jesse moves to Los Angeles where it wouldn’t take long to discover the sheer volume of her competition. All of the other models were considerably more experienced not just in their careers but in navigating life. Jesse has received a significant opportunity. Her first photo shoot is with the amateur photographer Dean (Karl Glusman). While backstage is preparing for the shoot, Jesse meets a make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who is immediately taken by the ingénue. Jesse is introduced to the other, older models, Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces fellow older models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). The other women seem obsessed with knowing Jesse’s level of sexual experience and sexual preferences. Not wanting to seem completely immature and therefore outside the professional circle of the other women, Jesse feigns expertise in a desperate attempt to fit in. This initial assignment is shocking, producing a visual impact on the audience that opens the film with an image indelibly etched in your mind. Jesse is reclining on a daybed the blood from a gash across her throat sliding down her arm, dripping into a pool of dark red which matches her lipstick. There is an eerie grace close to a surreal beauty.
The photoshoot is successful bringing Jesse to the attention of the owner of a significant agency, Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks). She sees something in Jesses that catches her attention and hires her on the spot Jesse providing the caveat that after making inquiries concerning her age always to respond, nineteen. There is a palatable sense of naiveté pervading Jesse that is in stark contrast to the carefully manufactured and forced presentation. The experienced models openly exude their disdain which ultimately works against them. The photo shoot is with one of the most highly sought after fashion photographers, Jack (Desmond Harrington). Casting is always crucial in a film so reliant on creating its impact visually.
Before her appointment, Jesse goes on a date with the first photographer, David. He is drawn to Jesse because of her aura of innocence which appears to heighten his need to add her to his list of sexual contrasts. Jesse is steadfast in rebuffing them. Jesse’s self-image was stoked not just by the attention of a handsome young man but with Roberta insists that Jesse possesses a natural talent and has the potential to be a highly successful model. For a girl out on her own for the first time, her understandable trepidation is subverted by the praise and attention. During this period Jesse becomes closer to Ruby who serves as a figure of experience and hope for maintaining a friendship. The psychological toll and serious emotional assault that is engrained deeply in the fashion world, the realization of this weighs heavily on this slender young woman. Jesse is far too young and inexperienced to have a reliable view of herself including what is within her capability and more importantly, what is beyond her. Everyone she encounters is entrenched firmly in the roles they play in the fashion world. The agents establish rules for the models such as when Roberta allows forged signatures on Jesse’s parental consent forms, yet she goes beyond Jesse lying about her age going so far as requiring it.
As Jesse undertakes other career opportunities, the audience is plunged into an increasingly surreal world. From Jesse’s point of view, it is frequently difficult to ascertain whether we are witnessing Jesses as part of reality or if we are accompanying her in a dreamlike state. By its very nature fashion is founded on capturing images of the imagination but within the contextual confines of this narrative blurring what few boundaries that remain between a dream state and reality to the point of nonexistence. When Jesse returned to her motel room, she finds it in complete disarray. The most unusual aspect of this usually normal place is the presence of a fully grown cougar with a menacing disposition. The disreputable manager, Hank (Keanu Reeves), demands that Jesse assumes complete financial responsibility for the destruction. Jesse’s mind is reeling. What she always believed to be a magical industry full beauty and imagination. In the space of a few days, she has been sunk into a quagmire of reality. Gigi broke of idealistic view when she informed Jesse that the ‘casting couch’ is a stark reality. To the others, it seems impossible that a teenaged newcomer should be selected to walk the most sheltered spot in any major fashion show, the climatic closing walk. Jesse tries to retain her integrity, but she is facing unimaginable opposition. This best of intentions are unable to resist the unyielding ablation caused by the immersion in this drastically new environment. The persistent self-serving attitude embraced by the industry inevitably wore her down revealing a new, narcissistic new persona. The primary theme of the corruption of depicting her innocence in full measure here cementing the message providing the audience with Jesse has the indisputable target. Unlike the slash and dash variety of horror, this movie relies on the subtly entwined details of the experience of innocence lost.
Undoubtedly on of the most controversial aspects this film is a theme that explores something that is close to being a universal taboo, cannibalism. It begins in a creepy by the relatively minor way when Jess cuts her hand on a shard of glass prompting Sarah to grab the injured hand greedily drinking the flowing blood. The escalation occurs in the final act, and it would require spoilers even to allude to but suffice it to say that graphically makes a point of the narrative through brutally explicit imagery. This is the culmination of the masterful use of dreamlike states and hallucinations to undermine and sense of reality the audience ma crave. This is a film that deserves multiple viewings. In part, it is necessary to comprehend the nuances that proliferate the manner in which the filmmaker chooses to tell the story. In many cases where the director makes the stylistic choice to heavily rely on imagery for exposition it frequently falls into the lamentable category of ‘more sizzle than steak.' While it is certainly true that the visual component of the movie far outweighs the use of dialogue the brilliance of this opus lies in the synergistic effect he manifested through his craftsmanship of balancing the two as tools necessary for a seasoned storyteller. The ethereal images may be a distraction; they are eerily beautiful in a macabre way. Experiencing the film multiple times permits the opportunity to become immersed in the dreams and illusions then rising above it to appreciate the flow of the story. In any case this is a film that will captivate and entertain.