Two things are clear when you approach a movie made by Nicholas Winding Refn: you won’t see long queues waiting to enter the cinemas to see it, and its visuals will blow your mind. Released in 2016, The Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves, and I guess that it could be defined a horror movie, although it’s not your standard jump scares-filled horror blockbuster. It’s actually closer to something made by David Lynch, or to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
The Neon Demon is a psychological horror movie with which the director tries to scare the mind of the audience by slowly building up tension and anxiety and then wrapping up everything with an explosive and cathartic resolution. The Neon Demon has a splendid and powerful finale, and everything building up to it is equally magnificent. In visual terms, this movie is close to Drive (2011), possibly the only movie by Refn who made a lot of money at the box office (more than $75 million worldwide): there are many silhouettes against saturated colors, and there are a lot of saturated colors, and you can tell that each scene is constructed with an incredible attention to details. All scenes have a geometric composition, often symmetric, and there’s rarely something chaotic: the whole movie almost feels like a series of paintings. This gives it an eerie feeling and puts the story on a different plane of existence, that of artificial perfection.
The great thing about the artificial perfection of The Neon Demon is that it’s not an end in itself. Rather, it fits into the themes of the movie, namely success, beauty and its role in our society, and in particular in the world of fashion. This is something that has been explored in other recent movies like, among others, Map to the Stars (2014) by David Cronenberg, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) by Martin Scorsese, and La Grande Bellezza (2013) by Paolo Sorrentino. All these movies comment on similar aspects of our society such as consumerism, capitalism, or even the world of Hollywood. The Neon Demon mainly deals with real beauty versus artificial beauty.
Our society rewards artificial beauty, with all media constantly showing impossibly skinny top models, handsome actors, and beautiful actresses. Well, it’s a fake world: there’s a filter between us and those people, a filter made by make-up, camera lenses, post-production, not to mention plastic surgery! In The Neon Demon, the beautiful and young Jesse enters that world, that utterly uninteresting plastic world, full of people who are superficially perfect, but in the inside they’re also soulless and bored to death. Elle Fanning (she was 18 years old when this movie was shot) interprets that innocent girl.
Everything around Jesse is sick, there’s no hope, no redemption, and you know from the beginning that she can only end up being eaten by the society. This destruction process changes her slowly, and after a while she begins to accept the change and she willingly becomes a cog in the machine. At the end, all the people we see on screen are inhuman, their manners completely fake in the eyes of the audience. Hank (Keanu Reeves) is a rapist and a killer, the top models look like witches fighting against aging, Ruby (Jena Malone) is obsessed with perfection and sex… On the other hand, the outsiders are real human being: Jesse pushes away Dean (Karl Glusman) because he doesn’t understand how the city works, as the initial Jesse slowly fades away due to the changes provoked by the show business. However, she doesn’t completely change, as she gets eaten (literally) before she can transform completely. The witches try to steal Jesse’s purity and at the same time save her from corruption.
What’s the message here? One possible message is that if you want to be different, death (literal or metaphoric) awaits you. And Jesse’s death is also the beginning of the end for the fake world of fashion: she’s too pure, and that’s why the top model which is obsessed the most with plastic surgery cannot digest Jesse, she regurgitates her. If this sounds morbid, well, in the context of the movie it’s not: The Neon Demon is a slow-paced, suspenseful movie, it’s just that its finale is macabre, although as visually stunning as the rest of movie.
Another element of interest is the following: an artistically and artificially perfect movie is a harsh critique of our world obsessed with artificial perfection. In the movie, everyone wants to contract Jesse, much like now we see Elle Fanning in a lot of movies while her older sister, Dakota Fanning, is now too old to be popular for Hollywood. It’s the same thing, isn’t it? La grande bellezza does it too: it criticizes a world without which it couldn’t exist.
The Neon Demon aims at being perfect visually and at the same time criticizes that same thing. Maybe Refn was a bit angry at Hollywood that forgot him quickly after the success of Drive? I don’t know whether this makes sense or if the visual style of the director is disconnected with the themes and actors of the movie, but judging from what Refn says in his interviews (he comes across as a bit unpleasant and extremely haughty), I think that the two things are definitively interconnected. Ciao!