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The Neon Demon (2016)

Who're You Wearing?

Before seeing The Neon Demon, I'd just about given up on Nicolas Winding Refn's films. Not only did I not click with Bronson and Drive, I outright despised them. I wondered, was I somehow deficient in my inability to appreciate these widely lauded works? Or had everyone else simply fallen for the latest pretentious art-house It Boy?

My biggest complaint about what I’ve seen of Winding Refn’s work has been his penchant for daring audiences to call him out on the shameless re-gifting of classic movies in film-snob wrapping paper. He has a brilliant eye for casting, and is a master of turning mash-ups into immersive audio/visual experiences. What is Bronson if not A Clockwork Orange meets Oz? What is Drive but The Transporter meets The Sopranos? Winding Refn’s movies tend to stop an hour before the end credits, and often devolve into staring contests and/or violent outbursts designed to keep the audience from snoring.      

Now that you know where I stand, here’s the bombshell:

I fell hard for The Neon Demon, a truly unsettling and unpredictable take on the allure of wealth, power, and fame. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a sixteen-year-old girl who lands in L.A. with modeling aspirations. She meets a photographer named Dean (Karl Glusman) online, who creates a ghoulish portfolio of Jesse as an exquisite corpse sprawled glamorously across a couch. An agency head (Christina Hendricks) takes notice, and Jesse instantly finds herself the envy of seasoned, catty models Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).

The film's title is not a metaphor for the entertainment industry. It refers to an actual sinister presence in the story that manifests as a triad of glowing inverted triangles. The demon seduces, possesses, and consumes innocence in the most chilling cinematic life cycle since the Xenomorph. Winding Refn and co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham amplify everything we know about Corruption Movie tropes and Monster Movie tropes, while also taking sharp left turns at almost every given opportunity. The result is a film that feels like the slickest, sickest version of films we’ve already seen.

If Bret Easton Ellis had written a Black Swan-inspired reboot of The Devil’s Advocate while Suspiria played in the background, with Under the Skin’s score pumping through his earbuds, the result would look a lot like The Neon Demon. The clouds settle in gradually, as Jesse’s mixture of naivete and almost accidental self-awareness* are seized upon by an ever deepening bench of depraved, superficially charismatic parasites. She accepts one small temptation after another, until her beacon of virtue has been dimmed enough to allow the demon a sufficient opening. Once inside, the monster uses Jesse as a smorgasbord instead of a meat puppet, reveling in each bite of soul-degrading humiliation.

You might expect a traditional battle of wills at this point, perhaps with Dean fighting off a black-goo-dripping doppelganger of his would-be girlfriend, and screaming, “I know you’re still in there, Jesse!”** Or maybe Jesse wrestles control of herself from the monster just in time to triumph over Sarah, Gigi, and sinister makeup artist/former BFF Ruby (Jena Malone). That might well have happened, had Winding Refn and company not launched the third act into the fifth dimension. Without spoiling the climax, I’ll say The Neon Demon throws tradition out the window in the last thirty minutes, exploring (but never stating) the conditions that allow the monster to thrive. Jesse remains very relevant to the story, but the filmmakers make it very clear that this is not her story.

This is a multi-layered film about the intersections between art and commerce. There are many avenues to pursue here, but I’ll touch on three that stood out most:

1. Jack (Desmond Harrington) is a famous fashion photographer who gives Jesse her first bit of exposure. During their only scene together, Jack clears the set and demands that his subject disrobe, right before he cuts all the lights. Jesse complies, and we are left to wonder if Winding Refn will actually "go there".

He does, and the scene plays out as an intense sexual encounter--not between a man and an underage girl, but between an artist and his materials. Jack has fed the beast long enough, and to such an effective degree, that he is permitted to go to any extremes he desires, even using human bodies as canvases. As Jesse is painted, posed, and transformed from person into project, the scene's mood changes from one of terror to a kind of celebratory liberation. The interplay between Fanning, Harrington, and the camera is sensuous, frightening, and daring; it's everything art should be.

2. With a jawline that would've make Michelangelo weep, Bella Heathcoate's Gigi is conventional beauty personified. She casually rattles off the various nips, tucks, sucks, and flushes she's undergone in a quest to essentially replace every part of her body--inviting us (and Jesse) to wonder what the original Gigi even looked like. Heathcoate appears to be a natural beauty, which makes her character even creepier. By not making the actress up in cartoonish prosthetics or bandages to drive home the extensive work she's had done, Winding Refn makes a darker point about our inability to trust what we see.

Gigi and Sarah remain in the middle of the fashion-model food chain, which is as good as not being on it at all. They depend on being molded, photographed, and sold in perpetuity; Jesse's arrival on the scene pushes up their expiration date, and not even sycophantic loyalty to a renowned designer (Alessandro Nivola) can save them from the human clearance rack.

3. Hank (Keanu Reeves) runs the fleabag motel in which Jesse lives. He's a gatekeeper for the titular monster, and his real job is to maintain a steady stream of "talent" for it to feed on. Dozens (maybe hundreds) of young hopefuls arrive in Los Angeles every day seeking fame and fortune. Some get fast-tracked to an agency within thirty-six hours, like Jesse; others wind up in the room adjacent to hers, turned out by violent opportunists. The purest sustenance rises to the top, while the run-off strains through Hank's gunked-up mesh filter before eventually lining the crusty basin of Hollywood lore.

Cliff Martinez’s score rounds out the film’s superb visuals and infinitely edible themes. Its eerie hybrid of his Drive synth and the otherworldly bio-beats of Mica Levi’s Under the Skin score evoke equal parts dread and romance—a highly effective aural metaphor for the titular monster’s dark enticements. The movie and soundtrack end with Sia’s haunting pop anthem “Waving Goodbye”, which pulsates like a brain-eating worm; the rhythms are upbeat, but there’s something disturbing about the vocalist’s sullen delivery that reminds me of the duality of Gigi’s striking beauty and rotten insides.

As unlikely as it sounds, Nicolas Winding Refn has directed one of my favorite films of the year so far. It takes a deft touch to comment on the vapidity of an industry built on artifice—without the commentary itself becoming stale. I don’t know if I was missing this touch in the filmmaker’s other work, or if his latest is just the perfect vehicle for his knack for super-charged appropriation. The Neon Demon is a near-religious cinematic experience that ate me up and spit me out.

*She claims to not be good at anything except looking pretty.

**Shades of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

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