The Neon Demon (2016)

First published by Sight & Sound, August 2016

Review: “You’ve slept with men before? You do sleep with men, don’t you?” Sarah (Abbey Lee) asks Jesse (Elle Fanning) in front of the big mirrors in a swanky nightclub’s bathroom.

“All the time”, Jesse replies, after too long a pause and with little conviction.

The truth is, Jesse is very much a virgin – a naïve girl just arrived in town with nothing but her looks and her youth, fresh meat in the shallow, cutthroat world of modelling. She is sweet 16, but on the advice of her new agent Jan (Christina Hendricks), says that she is older, without fooling anyone. She has not had sex yet with her nice boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman). And in the industry where, momentarily at least, she has “that thing”, her virginity is her currency, attractive to all precisely for its ephemerality. You can only lose it once – although older, more experienced (and less employable) models like Sarah and her surgically enhanced friend Gigi (Bella Heathcote) hunger desperately to get theirs back.

Jesse may stay a virgin, but The Neon Demon, directed and co-written by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), keeps creating images of her defloration or even rape by monstrous, predatory forces. The film’s opening sequence shows Jesse reclining, supine and corpse-like, on a couch, her head thrown back and red fluid oozing from her opened neck to the floor. If this is a tableau of post-coital murder, it is also Jesse’s first fashion shoot (and first blood) in LA. The vampiric imagery will recur in a later scene: after Jesse cuts herself on the sherd of a mirror that Sarah has just broken in a jealous pique, Sarah licks at Jesse’s injured hand, smearing blood all over her own lips – as though, like a latter-day Elisabeth Báthory, she can drain Jesse’s virginal youth and vitality. When he is introduced to Jesse, the first thing that hip fashion photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) does is ask her to remove all her clothes.

Meanwhile, back at the cheap Pasadena motel where Jesse is staying, a wildcat somehow gets into her first-floor room and lies growling on her bed (in a subsequent scene and setting, a stuffed leopard decorates the background). The skeezy motel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves, his charismatic good-guy image casually demolished here) regards as easy pickings the young hopefuls and underage runaways who drift to his establishment, and Jesse only manages to avert from herself a vicious sexual assault at Hank’s hands (and phallic blade) because of a vivid premonition of his forced break-in. Or does Jesse just dream up all of this?

Indeed, The Neon Demon resituates the dreamy filmworld fugues of Mulholland Dr. (2001) to La La Land’s parallel world of fashion. Like Naomi Watt’s actress wannabe in Lynch’s film, Jesse is gradually absorbed and devoured by the world she is so eager to enter, while her only industry friend, Ruby (Jena Malone), harbours a Sapphic interest (this time unrequited) in the ingénue. When Ruby is not applying foundation, lipstick and tinsel to models, she is making up bodies on a mortuary slab, and once her affections for Jesse are rebuffed, they are immediately transferred to a young blonde’s corpse – in a transgressive act that figures the peculiar, frustrating allure of once real breathing women reduced to frigid icons of desire. These tropes from horror (bloodsucking, necrophilia) are here presented as oneiric images, or ‘edgy’ fashion shoots, culminating in a bloody climax which realises carefully foreshadowed metaphors of anthropophagy and witchcraft – all amid baroquely coloured lighting and visual symmetries that evoke Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) as much as the fashion photography of Helmut Newton or Alice Hawkins.

Refn piles image upon image into a kaleidoscopic film about images that is also a hall (hell, even) of mirrors – with mirrors, and reflected figures, the film’s most obsessively recurrent motif. The Neon Demon is a sleek, seductive consumer artefact, its glossy surfaces and pulsing rhythms (courtesy of Refn’s regular composer Cliff Martinez) concealing rotten insides and symptoms of mortality – which is, of course, the point. In one central sequence, as Jesse enjoys her first solo saunter on the catwalk, she loses herself in her own image: a demonic alter ego reflected in a triptych of red-lit mirrors that together form a triangular, pubic symbol. If this key moment of intoxicating narcissism is not quite a deflowering, it is the turning point where Jesse loses her innocence, stops being herself, and starts assimilating to the other, older models around her – cannibalised into the (LA) scene.

Synopsis: [spoilers] Los Angeles. Virginal 16-year-old Jesse has arrived in pursuit of a modelling career, and through makeup artist Ruby, meets the older models Sarah and Gigi. Jesse fakes her parents’ consent signature, and, on her agent Jan’s advice, lies about her age. After an evening out with boyfriend Dean, Jesse returns to her motel room to find it trashed by a wildcat. Meeting Jesse for the first time, photographer Jack clears the set and shoots her naked. Overlooked at an audition where Jesse is noticed, Sarah breaks a bathroom mirror, cuts Jesse’s hand and licks the blood. Jesse, delirious, is nursed at the motel by Dean – who also pays off the motel’s lecherous manager Hank. Jesse wins a coveted show-closing catwalk spot over Gigi, and is mesmerised on the runway by her own hallucinatory reflection in triptych.

Upset at how much she has become like her shallow modelling colleagues, Dean leaves Jesse. In her room, Jesse has a premonition of being sexually assaulted by Hank, and then wakes to hear him raping her neighbour. Jesse flees to a mansion that Ruby is house-sitting, but rebuffs Ruby’s sexual advances. Ruby goes to the mortuary where she works part-time, and has sex with a young woman’s corpse. Attacked in the mansion by Ruby, Sarah and Gigi, Jesse falls backwards into the empty swimming pool, broken and bloody. After devouring Jesse, Sarah and Gigi get new work with Jack.

© Anton Bitel