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New Release Review - THE NEON DEMON

A wannabe teenage model becomes increasingly narcissistic upon immersion in the LA fashion scene.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Jena Malone, Karl Glusman, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola



The Neon Demon is pornography without the sex, designed to engorge or moisten the loins of arthouse fans. Refn's past work has merely hinted at his ability to produce something that combines this much substance, style and sleaze.



In the ancient Greek myth, Narcissus was a beautiful young man whose infatuation with his own looks led him to reject those who loved him. Nemesis, whose role was to punish those who displayed hubris before the Gods, lured Narcissus to a pool, where the young man became so entranced with his own reflection he became incapable of leaving, and died staring, entranced, at his own image.

In The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn transplants the myth to the contemporary Los Angeles fashion scene. His Narcissus is Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old wannabe model newly arrived from Georgia; his Nemesis is Ruby (Jena Malone), a lesbian make-up artist; and his pool is a swimming pool, drained of water in a seemingly abandoned mansion in the Hollywood Hills.



When we see Jesse first, she's laid out on a chaise longue, covered in blood, which pools around her like the red cape worn by Narcissus in paintings by John William Waterhouse and Alfred Rethel. The blood, we quickly learn, is fake - Jesse is posing for her first fashion shoot. In her dressing room afterwards, she is aided in removing the sticky red fluid by Ruby, who comments on how pure Jesse's skin is.

Unlike the film's male characters - the young shutterbug Dean (Karl Glusman), who smears her with fake blood; the stern faced and decidedly creepy photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington, who was a teen star a mere decade ago, yet appears to be in his 50s here), who hand-paints her flesh in gold; and Alessandro Nivola's unnamed gay fashion designer, who turns her body red and blue on his neon-bathed runway - Ruby's interest in Jesse goes beyond using her as a canvas upon which to project their own ideals of 'perfect' femininity.



Though virginal, Jesse is far from an innocent; she's all too aware of the power of her beauty, something which draws the ire of ugly-on-the-inside sisters Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), a pair of young models terrified of being made irrelevant by the arrival of Jesse. The more success Jesse achieves, the more unstable Gigi and Sarah become.

Refn calls himself a pornographer, and though his dubious misogyny (though, to be fair, none of the film's characters, male or female, are remotely likeable) is filtered through a female cinematographer (Natasha Braier, whose CV is impressive and diverse, yet all too barren; would a male DP of her talents be so unprolific?), every frame is designed to explicitly or subliminally arouse male (or lesbian) viewers, be it through the obvious (the abundance of female flesh) or the subtle (the production design is full of X shapes, adroitly preparing us for a shocking third act moment featuring one of the female protagonist's spread-eagled form, while also reminding us of the hourglass carried by Nemesis in the original myth). Offscreen, composer Cliff Martinez's pounding synth score throbs like an angry phallus. Though the four leads are female, Refn's protagonist is very much his own male gaze.



There's a lot going on under the surface here, but essentially The Neon Demon is an exploitation movie. Not a fake exploitation movie like those of Tarantino or Rodriguez, but the real deal, a filmmaker exploiting the cinephile's lust for beautiful images and the pervert's desire to see sexual taboos rendered in well lit tableux. It's like one of those Laura Gemser Emmanuelle knock-offs, if directed by Paul Schrader in his prime. It boasts that classic Schrader protagonist, the innocent who arrives in a city and finds themselves corrupted (it could almost act as a prequel to Hardcore), and the allusions to Cat People are telling. With Jesse's motel room invaded one night by a cougar, and Ruby's mansion - which looks a lot like the sort of crumbling, decadent villa where the lesbian vampires of Jean Rollin or Jess Franco might hide out - adorned with a stuffed leopard, there's the ever so subtle suggestion that the film's antagonists may themselves be feline shapeshifters.

The Neon Demon is pornography without the sex, designed to engorge or moisten the loins of arthouse fans. Refn's past work - most of his films contain standout moments, but rarely coalesce into a satisfying whole - has merely hinted at his ability to produce something that combines this much substance, style and sleaze. Now go away. I'm not comfortable standing up just yet.



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