I wish to stress that this is not a film for everyone. There are no spoilers in the review, but the link to the Cannes Film Festival does. Avoid that link until you have seen the film.
Anticipation: 4/5 Nicolas Winding Refn makes cinema. He is one of the few. Drive and Only God Forgives are masterpieces of cinema in their own right… The Neon Demon is my most anticipated film of 2016.
Final Verdict: 5/5 Gore, blood, sex, viciousness and irony. Refn’s stunning visuals tickle the eye as he cannibalizes bygone visual metaphors that, in the hands of a lesser director, could have delved into schlock. The Neon Demon will leave you hungry for more… but only if you can stomach it. A great film.
Jesse (Elle Fanning), a small town 16 year-old aspiring model moves to L.A. to start her career. Three women, Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), become jealous and obsessive of the attention she is getting. Their obsession for Jesse’s youth, beauty and lustiness becomes a violent attempt at consuming her allure.
On the surface, The Neon Demon seems like a commentary on contemporary society’s idolatry of the superficial, posing as a reflection of the pressures associated to the modelling industry. While I agree with that reading, the sublime triangle/prism imagery in The Neon Demon suggests that the film can be viewed from a variety angles and will reflect a plethora of colors.
The opening shot of The Neon Demon (header photo) is a tribute to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But, in doing what he does best, Refn reassess Kubrick’s objectification and commodification of women theme by using the audiences’ preconceptions to his advantage. The Neon Demon is not about the “male gaze,” but is rather about its subversion. The men in the film, are quite harmless, save for a few strange incidents involving nightmares, with the-ever-so-excellent-since-John-Wick, Keanu Reeves. The women, however, are haunting.
“Are you food? Or are you sex?” says Ruby to Jesse while she touches up her Redrum lipstick, another wonderful little nod to Kubrick, but this time to The Shining. The question Ruby asks underlines the tragic way the women in The Neon Demon see each other: as two forms of consumption. The question of identity comes up but once at a gathering with a fashion designer when Jesse’s “boyfriend,” Dean, says to her “Who are you?”, a question that seems ubiquitous in society today yet, very seldom rewarded with an honest response.
I will not single out a specific approach to Refn’s film because all great cinema is open to interpretation as Refn’s last three films, namely Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon have demonstrated. However, I do believe that The Neon Demon completes Refn’s existential triptych; a deconstruction of what it is to be Man (Drive), Woman (The Neon Demon) and their relationship to Faith/Fate, or for lack of a better word, “God” (Only God Forgives). Drive reassessed the prince’s role in fairy tales by looking past the “happily-ever-after” ending; Only God Forgives explored the dilemmas that come with a desire for vengeance and, if acted upon, the consequences of the Wrath of God. The Neon Demon is a companion piece to Drive inasmuch as it examines the fairy tale world from the side of the princess and what happens to the many aspiring princesses when they realize they are not chosen to be one.
Cinematographer Natasha Braier helps Refn polish the visual language of the film and as a result, there is a lot to be dissected from The Neon Demon. The stunning visuals and narrative allude to modern interpretations of fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but there are also flashes of the relationship between Lucifer, Leviathan, Belial and Satan; glimmers of Alice Through the Looking Glass and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (the weird sisters’ dealings with fate especially); and glints of the tale of Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the latter slightly suggesting Jesse’s dual personalities as both Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra. Add to the mix a little animal symbolism found in the form of a cougar, a leopard and a wolf, and drown all the ingredients in Pagan rituals and Kubrickian atmospherics, a visceral soundtrack by Cliff Martinez and voilà! A recipe for a fancy feast ready to be devoured! It may have turned the Cannes Film Festival into Gigi, but it definitely turned me into Ruby!
Some critics have brushed off The Neon Demon flat out calling it the culmination of fetishes from a pornographer, or a beautiful and visually arresting film but empty at its core, comparing the film’s narrative to the character of Jesse, who is only admired for her looks. I completely understand how some people may not have liked it and were/will be disgusted by the film. There are scenes in The Neon Demon that are quite disturbing and stick with you in a way that can be quite unpleasant. It really is not a typical film and I must stress that it is not for everyone. For some reason, I loved it. If you’re looking for something completely different than what you are used to watching, then I encourage you to give it a try.
As cliché as it may seem, the film toys with the notion that looks can be deceiving, and all I can hear right now is The Neon Demon whispering:
“I’m not as helpless as I seem.”
The Neon Demon opens Friday June 24th in the United States, July 1st in Canada and on July 8th in the U.K.
The Neon Demon trailer 1
The Neon Demon Red Band trailer
Also, here’s Little White Lies’ list of 8 films to see before watching The Neon Demon
Read IGN’s rather unfavorable review here
Watch Ryan Gosling moderate a conversation with Elle Fanning and Nicolas Winding Refn about The Neon Demon here