In the hands of director Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon turns into the most surreal, atmospheric and monstrous of depictions of the fashion world. He takes a familiar story and, rather than improve upon it, coats it in a thick glaze of his visually entrancing filmmaking.
Much like the world of high fashion, his picture is all about presentation and less about character. A unique commentary on the industry or just lazy screenwriting? It’s a quandary that is sure to make this film the most polarizing of his portfolio.
Refn keeps his characters cold and distant, making sure they never overpower the visuals. When the exceedingly young Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles to begin her modeling career, she is quiet and meek. Her introversion doesn’t seem entirely out of place with the people she associates with. Surrounding makeup artists, photographers and competing models drone on with inane dialogue. Could you guess that they spend most of their time talking about makeup, plastic surgery and who to sleep with to get to the top?
Jesse’s path can be easily telegraphed for her rise and fall. She slowly moves up the modeling chain and grows more insidious with each step. A kindly freelance photographer is tossed aside despite being one of the few to make her smile. A sympathetic makeup artist with romantic intentions is looked down upon by the rising star for her pathetic attempts at entering a lesbian relationship. Jesse learns to survive in an evil world where modeling agencies sign underage girls and landlords break into your hotel room to rape you.
What The Neon Demon lacks in depth of its character and story, Refn makes up for it with his trademark style of visual artistry. There are some amazing shots that will remain etched in your brain for days after. When Jesse makes her grand debut at a fashion show, she strolls into a representation of evil as she approaches occult imagery and basks in its tempting allure.
Painted with strobe lights, dizzying perspectives and an eerie score by Cliff Martinez, Refn composes a surreal nightmare of wonder. He takes the time to let the audience lose themselves in Jesse’s wicked world of color and status. For a movie that never features a scene of drug use, it’s a very hallucinogenic experience the way Jesse wanders her way into fame as though she made a wrong turn into the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks.
The picture manages to be a rather frustrating experience in how Refn becomes a master of wrapping the viewer into the artistic loss of innocence, but without a unique script to pull it along. The story was simplified in a manner that doesn’t match the unforgettable imagery. Any scene without the ambient score and intoxicating artistry comes off as dull minimalist writing.
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