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Arts & Culture

'The Neon Demon' Serves Up A Cinematic Seduction

A publicity photo from "The Neon Demon" with star Elle Fanning in make up and director Nicolas Winding Refn.
Broad Green Pictures
A publicity photo from "The Neon Demon" with star Elle Fanning in make up and director Nicolas Winding Refn.

The new film from Nicolas Winding Refn will not please everyone

Companion viewing

"The Valley of the Dolls" (1967)

"Suspiria" (1977)

"Only God Forgives" (2013)

The Neon Demon,” which opens June 24 at select San Diego area theaters, was booed at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. That puts it in good company with “Taxi Driver” and “Pulp Fiction.”

Any film that gets booed at Cannes is a film I want to see, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” did not disappoint. It’s a ravishing piece of cinematic seduction all about beauty and narcissism in that most self-absorbed, surface-obsessed city in the world, Los Angeles.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is 16 years old and a natural beauty with a sweet innocence about her. She arrives in Los Angeles after her parents died and hopes to find a career in high fashion. She meets a make up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) who immediately hones in on her uncorrupted freshness. Jesse seems embarrassed that her naivete is so obvious but Ruby reassures her “that deer in the headlights thing is exactly what they want.”

Jesse is set in contrast to a pair of older, jaded models who at first dismiss her as a mere wannabe. But they soon realize she is a genuine threat. I don’t want to say anything else about the plot because I love how the film unfolded, and part of the satisfaction is the turns it takes.

“The Neon Demon” is the perverse offspring of Italian giallo/horror and the trashy melodrama of “Valley of the Dolls” and “Showgirls.” And like “Showgirls," which was also directed by a foreigner in the U.S., Paul Verhoeven, it has a surface sheen that distracts from the dark humor underneath. From Italian giallo (the kind of lurid ones made famous by Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci) it takes the bold colors, infatuation with attractive women, and gallons of blood.

But Refn hides these somewhat low-brow genre roots beneath the glittery gloss of high fashion. He delivers a gorgeous film about ugly things.

In his director’s statement for the film he wrote:

"With ‘The Neon Demon,’ I wanted to create a funny, beautiful, violent, sexy, melodramatic, titillating teen horror film, but without the horror. This idea had been simmering in my brain from the time I started making films, but it was my beautiful wife who inspired me to turn it into a story about beauty and insanity, resulting in a very visceral experience."

In some ways the criticism he’s been receiving on the film must be delighting him because the criticism seems to pinpoint exactly the things he’s commenting on in his film. Critics are damning it for not having a plot, for having thinly (no pun intended) developed characters, and for being all about surfaces. Well yes, exactly. Refn is making a film that has all the traits of the world that he is depicting. What better way to comment on our obsession with beauty than to make a beautiful film that beguiles us. At one point a character describes Jesse as a diamond among glass. And that’s what Refn’s film is too but at first glance they can both look the same.

Trailer for "The Neon Demon"

I love Refn’s work and seeing “The Neon Demon” right after seeing the documentary “De Palma” was perfect. Brian De Palma was a filmmaker dedicated to a particular vision and he crafted his film with great care. Refn has that same obsession with that sense of cinematic craft. Both directors make films that at their core also seem to be about the act of making a film.

“The Neon Demon” is a stylistic companion piece to “Refn’s “Only God Forgives.” Both are more overtly about creating a mood and a story crafted from bold images. Those films are different from his “Bronson” and “Drive,” which had stronger narrative plots and a more testosterone driven sense of action.

He seemed to want to provoke a response by stating in the press materials:

"I believe there is a 16-year-old girl in every man and making ‘The Neon Demon’ was my opportunity to explore this side of myself. I imagined myself as a young girl, moving to Los Angeles for the first time in an attempt to make it big. It’s the classic star-in-the-making subgenre. Within this fantasy, it occurred to me that in fairy tales, we define men by their strength and women by their beauty. However, in reality, beauty in and of itself has become a source of strength to be reckoned with. As time passes, our obsession with beauty continues to grow while the longevity of what we consider to be beautiful has been shrinking. The idea for ‘The Neon Demon’ was to find out what happens when the obsession with beauty supersedes its longevity."

His statement reveals that he does have something on his mind and if you don’t take everything at face value, you will find a chilling tale beneath. At one point a character says of Jesse: “True beauty is the highest currency we have and without it she would be nothing.” To which Jesse’s boyfriend says it’s not the exterior but the interior that’s important. And in a sense he’s right. His error is in assessing what that interior is. The old adage of not judging a book by its cover comes to mind.

“The Neon Demon" — rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language — is not for everyone for multiple reasons. But for those of us obsessed with cinema and the power of images, Refn reveals a master at work and delivers a film of hypnotic beauty. I also want to mention how much I loved his use of sound and contrast between booming music at parties and absolute silence.