Director Nicolas Winding Refn has continuously mixed A-list stars with a visual style that is firmly rooted in the Arthouse style, and his latest film “The Neon Demon” does very little to deviate from this trend. If you found the emotional detachment of the central characters in films such as Drive, or in Refn’s following project Only God Forgives less than engrossing then you may find yourself becoming quickly bored with this tale of vampirism, the loss of innocence and the vacuous nature of the modelling industry, but those who are fans of exploitation cinema should find plenty to admire.
At the heart of the drama is Jessie, played by Ella Fanning, a young woman who moves to Los Angeles in order to fulfill her dream of becoming a supermodel. Jessie is quickly picked up by one of the top modelling agencies, but finds herself being dragged into a world in which the careers of the stars are built on the blood and tears of the girls who are cast aside. As one girl states to Jessie in an early scene, “Are you food or are you sex”, a fitting metaphor for the competitive industry that she is sucked into. Elle Fanning is great in the central role, it is certainly not an Oscar-worthy performance, and I would argue that is exactly the performance Refn desires, but Fanning does possess that ‘something’ that is able to captivate an audience each time she appears on screen.
The emotionally empty world of the modelling world has been explored in cinema before, but has proven to be a treacherous beast to master. As Laura Mulvey famously suggested, although I am paraphrasing to an extent, the camera has an inherent ability to fetishize anything that falls under the metaphorical “gaze”. Therefore films that have attempted to reveal the ugly world beneath the glitz have found themselves corrupted by their world: Showgirls is the classic example of a misguided attempt at this genre. However Refn rises above this hazard by using the glamour to his advantage: the frame is littered with dazzling colours and vibrant flashes of light that move the film out of the real world, in some ways Refn has produced a visual postcard that captures an animated but empty world. Some critics would suggest that this glossy imagery ultimately results in a cold, callous film, but actually the film contains a number of sequences of raw emotion. In one crucial scene we witness the crushing humiliation of a girl as she fails to impress the modelling judges.
Nicolas Winding Refn should be applauded for refusing to sacrifice his artistic vision in favour of massive mainstream success, The Neon Demon being a flop on release shows that this approach is always risky, but it is actually one of the better horror films of recent years. Refn has not produced a film about things going bump in the night, or grisly aliens invading the planet, but has instead revealed the vampiric nature behind one of the worlds largest industries. It is an industry that feeds on both the souls and the bodies of thousands of women, and there are few things more horrible than that.