Skin Deep? The Neon Demon Film Review

The Neon Demon is the tenth film directed by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn; the third consecutively to debut at Cannes and the second to be met there with a chorus of boos. The film is a pristine gut-punch. It follows Jessie, played to career-making perfection by Elle Fanning, a sixteen-year-old arriving in LA to try and break into the modelling industry. Perhaps the less traditionally striking of the film’s several beautiful women, the screenplay implies that it is her innocence, and the fact she arrives untouched by plastic surgery, that which makes her the object of envy, and infatuation, for almost every character in the film. Refn says it’s his first horror-film: an odd sentiment given the graphic violence of most of his preceding movies and the initial fairy-tale sheen of this one, but it does indeed contain some of the most horrific acts I’ve seen piled on after another on screen. I saw it twice.

This film helped me give a very bad first impression. Meeting my friend’s new girlfriend for the first time, I suggested seeing this. We could have opted for The Secret Life of Pets, but I was so bewitched the first time that I was eager to see it again. As I watched their reactions to one particular scene set in a morgue, I thought: “this is starting to reflect badly on me”. The film has such a potent effect on my friend and his partner that he had to accompany her home as she felt so nauseous. It’s not one for everyone then. But from a director who asserted that this is the future direction of art, and that “good” or “bad” should be reserved for chicken burgers, this should be no surprise.

The Neon Demon is the most complete creative vision I’ve seen played out in a cinema this year. That may not make it the ‘best’ film, but it should earn Refn great credit. The bizarre and bloody scenes that unfurl at the end of this movie, which last for about a quarter of its runtime but certainly define it, are essential to capturing the sentiment of the characters within it. In another film they may just be there for shock value yet here, given the subject matter at hand, they are part of a logical conclusion. As the resolution of a film which tries to capture the true nature of narcissism and the desperate pursuit of beauty, through metaphor – the denouement of The Neon Demon is so uncomfortable, and so visually striking, it’s now hard to imagine the brutality of that world portrayed in any other way.

Recently Refn has also come under fire for putting style above substance. It’s bizarre to me that a film which provides apolitical but essential commentary of the treatment of women by the fashion industry and offers a disturbing and convincing allegory for beauty as a system of class could be considered insubstantial. It’s true that the film is very stylish: every frame could be a still from the exact type of advertising produced by the world the film depicts, and it’s the third since Drive to bask in a particular multi-coloured glow, but its gorgeous composition is The Neon Demon’s final stroke of genius. Unlike the far-better-received Drive and Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon is the first of the three whose subject matter actually convenes with the glistening coloration. Like post-Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf, and the street-nightmares recorded as punishing industrial hip-hop by the band Death Grips, the style of this film is part of its substance. The grizzly way Refn parodies the fashion industry alone would have made a good film. The choice to present it in same the high-gloss language of that very world made it a great one.


Despite the inevitability of the evocative closing scenes dominating discussion of the film, The Neon Demon wouldn’t work without the masterful opening two acts. Though telling a very simple story, it’s the first three quarters are filled with arresting tableauxs, psychedelic Lynchian symbolism and some terrific performances. Eighteen-year-old Elle Fanning manages to switch on a dime from naïve young girl to a woman half-eaten my narcissism, but she isn’t alone. Refn gets deeply unnerving performances from ex-supermodel Abbey Lee, who’s beautiful, vulnerable and disturbed all at once, while Bella Heathcote fills the plastic-princess role to a tee. Jena Malone steals the show though as the warm Ruby, a make-up artist who’s a little more Scary Spice than first meets the eye.

The plot of the film is indeed little more than perfunctory: Refn shoots more for the gut than the brain, and the dialogue serves such a purpose – at first stilted and a little awkward, until it becomes clear that it’s yet further evidence of the characters’ superficiality. Sadly, Karl Glusman, as Jessie’s wide-eyed friend Dean, does not read as a nuanced performer playing it stilted – just a young actor struggling through his lines. And Refn is not beyond criticism. So rich is the symbolism of the film that some of it was sure to be a little on the nose, and indeed the moment a jaguar jumps onto Jessie’s bed the film turns briefly into a sub-par Netflix original. The aforementioned morgue scene is also a moment of “really Nicolas…?” Its deeply uncomfortable to watch and I’m sure that’s intentional, but as with the eyeball-torture scene in his previous film, it fails to add anything to the narrative or character, making it simply distasteful.

Aside from this one loo-break moment though, The Neon Demon is, to me, Nicolas Winding Refn’s most complete film since Bronson, and one of the year’s very best. Very few one-screen depictions of narcissism come as close to capturing the essence of its consuming-power as this one: it’ll stay rattling around your head for days, and ward you off mirrors for weeks.

Theo J. Inscoe

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