Nicolas Winding Refn returns to the glossy yet eerie, electric lights of Los Angeles in The Neon Demon, a psychological horror that sees Elle Fanning star as Jesse, a 16-year-old girl who travels to the city in hopes of becoming a successful model.
Upon her arrival, she soon gets discovered by a couple of high-profile photographers and designers that make her the envy of established models much older than she is (20-years-old is regarded a pensioner in this industry).
Much to her relief, she soon gets taken under the wing of overly-friendly make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who then introduces her to fellow posers Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). Before long however, the young women become jealous of the fresh-faced new arrival and the more they hear of her instant success, the more they want to put a stop to it – in any way they can.
"Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing," a fashion designer lectures to Jesse and her friend Dean (Karl Glusman), summing up perfectly what this film is all about. Those who know Refn's work will already be aware of his methods when it comes to colour and here, he uses it to express what the characters so often don't say. Reds hint at danger, and blacks – such as the starry night skies Jesse loves to look upon – could even symbolise release. Cinematographer Natasha Braier sets the film's contrast up high, emphasising the heightened and exaggerated fashion world depicted here and it's stunning.
Clive Martinez' soundtrack adds to the atmosphere too. His loud and synthesised electro-pop score filling the scenes where dialogue isn't necessary, pulsating through your eardrums like a heartbeat, reminding you that humans are at the centre of this depraved and vain world.
In one particular scene towards the beginning of the film, Ruby drags a reluctant Jesse along to a party, which plays host to an exhibit of bondage-like performance art. The two characters stand behind one another as the lights flicker on and off frantically, back and forth from bright red to dazzling white as the music pounds. As Jesse takes everything in with wide, hopeful eyes, her newly-adopted trio gaze at her steelily – it's menacing and just one example of the perfect use of shot and sound that Refn utilises throughout.
While Fanning offers up an alluring and angelic protagonist in Jesse, it's magnetic Malone that steals the show. Given that her character was a make-up artist in a sea of models, her approach to the industry is different from the get-go; she's sceptical of creepy photographers' intentions when they're asking Jesse to strip naked for a shoot whereas girls in the same position as the "deer in the headlights" would have swiftly obliged. And it's this outsider's perspective that enables Malone to flesh out her role a little more.
But she's predatory and quiet too, which simultaneously adds to her seductiveness and disguises her true intentions with Jesse. You never know whether her caring, sisterly nature towards the lead character is genuine or if, like everyone else in the fashion world, she just wants her own piece of Fanning's young teen, making for some intense scenes.
Then again, you don't know how anyone feels about anyone in the film, as not one character is particularly likeable. Metaphors for cattiness are everywhere Jesse turns, from Sarah, Gigi and Ruby pouncing on her with questions in a lavish bathroom to a cougar making its way into her motel room and lastly a stuffed leopard towards the end of the movie. Fear not however, there's one or two, perfectly scathing lines that can't help but make you awkwardly giggle and think of Mean Girls to cut the tension from time to time.
One of Refn's previous film, Drive, had its fair share of shocking scenes, from Ryan Gosling's unnamed driver smashing a man's arm with a hammer and impulsively stomping on someone's head in a dingy lift to Christina Hendricks' head being blown clean off. The Neon Demon however, disturbs in different ways, arguably leading to the divisive reactions to the film since it started being shown at Cannes Film Festival. It's not particularly violent as most of its gore is actually shown off-screen and yet, people were up in arms about the picture.
What it does do however, is interweave the macabre with desires such as sex and the desperation to be loved and while it's easy to distance yourself from wanting to kill someone per se, those emotions are universally understood. By connecting us to these aberrant acts in that way, it does make it all the more disturbing and uncomfortable to watch.
Many of us have kissed our reflections in the mirror while behind closed doors just because we felt like it, or looked at someone longingly when we knew they couldn't see us. We don't engage in cannibalism or necrophilia, mind you, but this a film and it's not concerned with being realistic. It's whole story line is ridiculous but then so is the world Refn is trying to present.
We find ourselves squirming in our seat as we try to grasp what is driving these characters to do such things. It certainly not spelled out for us, that's for sure, and we're left coming to our own conclusions at every turn.
However you feel after you watched any of Refn's outings, there's no denying that you'll feel something; be it disgusted, awed or simply entertained. The director crafts technical brilliant films that aren't afraid to be bold and beautiful in style and while that aesthetic and attitude may come at the detriment to the story sometimes, The Neon Demon has enough interestingly unique merits visually to hold your attention and stay with you long after you've left the cinema.