In the shimmering Tinseltown gothic of Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, beauty is a commodity both precious and volatile, subject to runway trends and the ravages of age, with just a blemish, a wrinkle, or a sliver of fat separating today's "It Girl" from tomorrow's bus back to Indiana.
One model is on a first-name basis with her plastic surgeon, "Dr. Andrew," whose subtle micro-procedures carve her features to preserve her youth and accommodate the fashion of the day. The margins are thinner than the waistlines in this particular arena, and since the emergence of new talent naturally hastens the exit of fading stars, professional resentment burns hotter than a klieg light.
As an art-horror director who specializes in violent, hyper-masculine genre pictures like Drive, Valhalla Rising, and Only God Forgives, Refn isn't exactly the ideal messenger for a thesis on oppressive beauty standards for women. In fact, the bulk of his career has been devoted to fetishizing sex and violence, and putting his own steep premium on the sensual objects that catch his eye. Refn's contradictions are hard to resolve, but The Neon Demon makes it easier by taking place in a Hollywood of pure abstraction—a bright, seductive, nightmarish approximation of the real thing. Through Refn's lens, Beauty, Jealousy, Vanity and Desire are themes played out in capital letters, and they confront the audience in arresting grotesque.
Much like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, Elle Fanning's Jesse comes to town as a talented, innocent naif who's beset by threats from all sides. A 16-year-old runaway, Jesse checks into a scummy motel that seems to specialize in guests just like her; the manager, played in a menacing cameo by Keanu Reeves, informs her of an even younger girl residing next door. Despite her age, Jesse's striking looks earn her a modeling agent (Christina Hendricks) and an immediate ascendance to the top of her profession, bewitching high-end photographers and designers whose male gaze toggles between desire and psychopathy.
In this sinister environment, entirely dictated by men, toxic rivalries develop between women competing for the same jobs. When she's not dealing with the terrifying overtures of the motel manager and her photographers, Jesse faces the nasty, covetous resentment of Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who are willing to devour her, literally, to stay in the picture. Her lone advocate is Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist who recognizes her vulnerability and seems eager to prcloseotect her, but she masks ulterior motives of her own.
Ravishingly photographed by Natasha Braier, The Neon Demon pulsates and glows in brilliant primary colors, like watching a 3-D movie without the need for glasses. From the opening shot of Fanning posing in a macabre scene, with throat slashed and blood forming a reflective pool against the light, Refn offers the film as a provocative art object, pitched somewhere between the museum and the grindhouse. The shock effects of vampirism and necrophilia are neutralized, at least in part, by the cold formalism of Refn's style, which cuts like a steel blade. The actions may get more extreme as the film goes on, but the overall tone never changes—it's like a shadow that slowly expands in size until it engulfs everyone on screen.
The Neon Demon is also Refn's play on the Italian giallo tradition, specifically Dario Argento's benchmark horror film Suspiria, which also uses retina-searing colors to articulate the hostilities within a profession that demands perfection oft he female form. Refn reduces Hollywood to a hermetic bubble that's not much larger than the ballet school in Suspiria, and leaves the same impression that his heroine cannot escape the parties, fashion shows, and agency offices that form its borders. The sincerity of his convictions about real-world objectification and beauty standards may be a big fat question mark—and the film is not, as the boobirds at Cannes will tell you, for all tastes—but the mesmeric pull of The Neon Demon cannot be denied. It lures you in for the kill.