Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn is a brand of his own now – complete with logo splashed liberally across the credits – and his latest neo-horror objet d’art, The Neon Demon, is that brand’s clearest expression. Pulsing with repressed animosity and insatiable hunger, it is a superficial but viscerally satisfying nightmare ride into the world of modeling.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is 16 and wants to be a model in Los Angeles. Lying about her age, she is quickly signed to a prestigious agency, and her ineffable allure draws attentions both desired and unthinkable into her orbit.
In keeping with the stylistic tone set by the hugely divisive Only God Forgives, Refn reminds us of his core impulse to produce pornography. Demon is total cinematic porn: every frame a glittering jewel designed to stimulate, if not titillate. For a story focusing so closely on the objectification of the female body, Refn is careful not to fall into his own trap, with nudity appearing sparingly.
This is maybe all he spares, with the film’s final phase descending into every act of depravity imaginable. As desire, frustration and obsession boil over into action, each undercurrent of the narrative is gruesomely realised in acts of cannibalism, necrophilia, sexual violence. This may be one of the few true horror films of the year, in that it induces shock so effectively.
There’s something hypnotic to the way in which the narrative, co-written by Refn, British playwright Polly Stenham and Mary Laws, makes the viewer complicit in the culture. We are drawn to judgement on Jesse’s appearance and that of her peers, and her naivety in contrast to the icy Sarah (Abbey Lee) and the two-faced Gigi (Bella Heathcote); we reflect Christina Hendricks’ offhanded comment, “I would never call you fat, but that doesn’t mean others won’t.”
Every element of the film is predatory, from the silent gaze of Natasha Braier’s gliding camerawork to the characters themselves. It’s like watching Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer if Grenouille himself were the director, and in that framework lurk characters of varying voracity. Keanu Reeves takes a turn as a rapacious motel owner, claiming one of the most genuinely galling scenes in the film, and even Jena Malone’s sweet make-up girl applies her craft to corpses as a morgue worker, in a nod to the lifelessness of overly constructed beauty.
Each of these characters and their arcs are rather two-dimensional, but then, everything is artifice, crafted for first impression. It hardly matters that the plot is close to superfluous, its insights old hat; Refn’s purpose alone makes up the gap. A problematic thread of the plot implies that women in the industry are often their own worst enemies, but no one is innocent here: not even doe-eyed Jesse.
Though its beauty may only be skin-deep, The Neon Demon satisfies some insatiable, inexplicable craving we don’t wish to admit, all the while threatening to drive the shards of mirror it holds up to the world straight into our eyes.
The Neon Demon opens in cinemas Thursday October 20.