The Neon Demon

UK Release Date 8th July 2016
Director Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Elle Fanning
Runtime 118 Minutes
Certificate 18
Reviewer Mark
Reviewed 27th October 2016

They stand statuesque under blazing red lamps, War of the Worlds tripods reconfigured to strike again, this time at the vanity of humanity. The models are teleported to the beach by their vacuous lack of talent. Legs straight, hands on hips they are relentless in their pursuit of beauty. Gigi and Sarah are a runway walk away from electrocution, their perfect spines block out nature’s stirring reality in favour of the hallucinogenic allure of the male gaze.  Earlier Sarah asked her younger rival Jesse a question, “What’s it feel like? To walk into a room, and it’s the middle of winter. You’re the sun.” Jesse is deadly serious, monotone when she responds, “It’s everything.”  

Jesse is sixteen, a small town runaway in Los Angeles with a limited back-story, “I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't write... no real talent. But I'm pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” Her agency wants her to lie about her age, a Paul Hardcastle sample on repeat, “Always nineteen,” and sign her own parental consent form. Jesse does, a left-handed scrawl that marks her deal with the devil, The Neon Demon that turns the narcissism dial up to the radioactive intensity of the sun. What did Gary Oldman’s Sid Vicious say in Sid and Nancy? “The TVs so bright it hurts my eyes.” 

Nicolas Winding Refn is colour blind so the colours and tones he inflicts on his audience are ultra high contrast, as if the warning signs are bleeding through the images because we think we’re too cool, too media savvy to take notice. We know how the fashion business manipulates us, but like sartorial sadomasochists we dish out and receive the pain with alarming regularity. Every click, swipe or like feeds The Neon Demon, every airbrushed detail, every deleted photo, every two-fingered smile erases the contours of our soul and imprints our digital self, our nuclear shadow stamped online, code for flesh.

When Jesse closes a prestigious fashion show, her sweetness and light routine is chillingly replaced with her new model self. She is the centre of her own, mirrored threesome, delivering lingering tongue flicks to herself in triplicate. Another facet watches, Aryan and red, jealous with desire and longing to be united with her gorgeous, experimental selves. Jesse’s performance is the ultimate algorithm, showering her with her own worldview, the things she likes-the very best versions of herself. Jesse has ascended, a Übermensch transformed inside her own Fortress of Solitude. Remember how that deep crimson trick worked out for Zod in Superman II?

As Jesse believes her own hype she ejects her allies with the deadly efficiency of a professional assassin, replacing empty magazines with fully loaded ones. She is lulled into the invincibility of youth, blind siding her saviour and paedophile in waiting, “I don’t wanna be them, they wanna be me.”  On her motel bed she stretches her arms and her legs, feeling her way into her new super-model persona. The robots of the model old guard send barbed warnings her way but thwarting make up artist, Ruby’s sexual assault seals Jesse’s fate, as Ophelia like, she hovers above an empty swimming pool on a diving board that could be a willow branch. 

The Neon Demon is too beautiful to look at; the sheen of good-looking is so thoroughly polished that to watch for so long is a sin. Even the Swastikas emblazoned on a chic bathroom are gorgeous. Where are the free-mirrored shades to help avert our eyes from Medusa’s glare? Thankfully as Sarah stands firm in the middle of the Los Angeles winter, her stony gaze is hidden behind her own sunglasses. She is the sun, that ball of nuclear fire that everyone looks at, that we are transfixed by despite the knowledge that one day it will go supernova and destroy us all. “ Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

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