Amidst blood and glitter, The Neon Demon is a visually striking tale of vanity and jealous rage.
Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old orphan, becomes part of the Los Angeles modeling scene after photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) discovers her online and uses her for a macabre photoshoot. She catches Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist, staring at her after the shoot, who then takes Jesse to a party and introduces her to models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). Jesse is perpetually reminded of her natural allure by men and women alike. Sarah notes beauty has an expiration date, comparing Gigi to sour milk and Jesse to fresh meat. This idea is perpetuated by intermittent images of wild animals and the hungry eyes that follow Jesse. Sarah and Gigi are eventually ousted by the up-and-coming youth, causing vanity to take on a demonic form.
Quiet and still aren’t typical qualities of a modern movie that captivates. The Neon Demon, however, relies heavily on the two and shines like a glitter-encrusted Elle Fanning.
After movie previews blow out viewers’ ears, they are fully aware of the chilling silence that follows the opening credits. People stop chewing their popcorn, are careful not to move in order to maintain the quiet that settles over the theater.
Silence is persistent throughout the movie, accentuating the idea that what matters is what you see, not what you hear. Modeling agent Rebecca Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) informs Jesse, “People believe what they’re told.” Writer/director/producer Nicolas Winding Refn wants us to believe what we see.
Each moment is punctuated by either stark silence or carefully placed dance music. The instrumental tunes alternate between floating and pulsating.
Without music or sound drowning out reality — the squeaking of heels in a runway audition, the deep breathing that follows a heavy moment, the slosh of saliva slipping from one mouth to another — we notice subtle movements. When Jesse is reassured of her angelic form, the corner of her mouth curves quickly into a smirk before returning to its vacant shape. We see the fear in her eyes. We notice her body trembling or swaying.
Among the understated gestures is an abundance of staring, mostly at Jesse. A lot is communicated through the character’s expressions, whether it be malice or hunger. Cumulatively, the staring and silence instills unease and distrust in viewers.
The characters are otherwise stoic. Gazing in one direction, unmoved by those around them, the models are stiff. Movement is left to the camera, lights and mirrors. This highlights a model’s dependence on her visage as opposed to her actions or ideology. As the film’s pompous fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) notes, “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
The camera unhurriedly zooms in or out, pans left or right. Sometimes this makes a scene look like it’s breathing. Sometimes it adds vastness to a once limited view.
Lights flash and strobe, adding depth to what often seems like a motionless photograph. Mirrors and windows not only show us a different perspective but also reflect the theme of vanity.
The prominent characters differ from our original impression of them. Ruby remarks early that lipstick shades are named after either food or sex. We are led to wonder whose appetite Jesse will satiate.
This visually stunning thriller warns against the neon demon of narcissism. It’s a must-see on the big screen.