Saying The Neon Demon will not be for everyone is a statement so absurdly obvious as to be redundant. Nicolas Winding Refn’s films have been hugely divisive, but this more than any of his works to date will drive a love/hate wedge between viewing factions. On top of that, warnings for 18-certificate, Daily Mail-baiting content are also warranted upfront for extremely gruesome violence, swearing, and some very shocking I-can’t-believe-they-went-there sexual content. The faint of heart and easily offended need not apply.
Still with me? Great, because actually I confess I really liked The Neon Demon. The plot, such as it is, concerns sixteen year old model Jessie (Elle Fanning), who arrives in LA to try and launch her modelling career. She is promptly hired by an agency and told to “always say you’re nineteen” having faked a parental consent signature. The pace is deliberate and stately, with every frame artfully designed and calculated with auteur precision, and at this point the viewer expects a cynical satire on the superficiality of the fashion industry, or a Faustian tale. The modelling world depicted herein is an occult secret society to which one must sell one’s soul. Beauty, as one character says, is not everything. It’s the only thing.
However, The Neon Demon then takes a very surreal turn, leading to an absolutely deranged, barmy, blood-soaked finale that refuses to do moral heavy lifting on the part of the viewer. It will shock and repel, certainly. And it will also infuriate. But sometimes cinema is meant to do that, even if the immediate purpose isn’t obvious. It can be taken at face value, certainly, but it is there is an ambiguity which extends even into the end credits, offering multiple interpretations. What exactly has taken place? Are we seeing delusion? If so whose? Is it reality? Fantasy? A bit of both?
Performances are certainly good, not just from Fanning but also Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote and especially Jena Malone (who I’ve been a big fan of ever since Donnie Darko). An against-type Keanu Reeves deserves a special mention too, playing a sleazy sex predator motel owner. As a director Refn firmly stamps his own signature on the film, but also borrows from multiple sources. There are shades of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Aronofsky’s Black Swan and most obviously 1970s Italian giallo horror movies, such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Visually the film is a meticulous kaleidoscope of sterile infinity curves, kissed, smashed and scrawled on mirrors, occult prisms, unflinchingly cruel, humiliating shoots (in which photographers behave like serial killers), and an endless supply of girls wilfully subjecting themselves to a mercilessly voyeuristic cattle parade. Even when the film veers into deliberate exploitation, it scarcely feels as though it is being done for titillation purposes.
Twisted, perverse and gleefully depraved, The Neon Demon is a brilliantly repugnant, deliriously nasty film which is unforgettable for good or bad reasons, depending on who you are. Extreme caution recommended (the cinema ticket seller couldn’t resist advising me that the film was “seriously f***ed up”), but if you share my sensibilities, it is definitely recommended.