What if Little Red Riding Hood was part wolf?
That’s the underlying question of The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish, strobe-lit fairy tale about the gift/curse of beauty in a world overrun with narcissism. The story is set, naturally, in Los Angeles, where a 16-year-old girl named Jesse (Elle Fanning) hopes to make it as a model. It’s both her youth and physicality that immediately capture the attention of the industry. As a makeup artist (Jena Malone) tells her: “That whole deer in the headlights thing is exactly what they want.”
Despite its contemporary setting, The Neon Demon struck me as a fairy tale from the moment we learn that Jesse’s parents — like Snow White’s and Cinderella’s — are dead. Refn (making his first female-centric film after the savagely masculine likes of Drive, Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives) offers other connections to folklore, from the magical twinkling that’s sprinkled like fairy dust in Cliff Martinez’s otherwise electro-pulse score to the casting of Fanning, who appeared in Maleficent as Sleeping Beauty herself.
Fanning conjures the same sort of fresh-faced innocence here, at least at the start. As Jesse is molded by photographers and designers — literally, in the case of a queasily suspenseful photography shoot where she is splattered with liquid gold — it’s not so much that her innocence fades, or that she’s defiled in any way. In fact, the stunning makeup (overseen by Erin Ayanian) and costume design (by Erin Benach) reveals how such artistic manipulation can, at its best, work in concert with “natural” beauty. What is ugly, however, is the blood-curdling way the movie depicts this all going to Jesse’s head.
This is a strobe-lit fairy tale about the gift/curse of beauty in a world overrun with narcissism.
The most striking example comes in what could be called the movie’s Narcissus sequence. Onstage at a fashion show, where the darkness is illuminated only by strips of blue and pink neon, Jesse soaks in the attention and begins to feel her power. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier then launch into a psychedelic fantasy, in which Jesse enters a triangle of neon and mirrors. Looking meaner and more confident than before (Fanning’s ability to shift gears is astonishing), Jesse gazes at herself in the mirror — her pond — and kisses her own reflection. Refn and Braier employ strobe lights and camera flashes throughout the film to purposefully disorient us, but this is The Neon Demon at its purest and most sensory. It captures the blinkered experience of obtaining adoration we were not made to receive.
Staring at Jesse during the fashion show is one of the two older models who circle her, suspiciously, for much of the film. Played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, they both have the severe sheen of a Michael Bay extra. Perched over Jesse in most scenes, they reminded me of praying mantises — all limbs and menace. At one point Sarah (played by Lee), admits her jealous desperation to Jesse and asks her what it’s like to command the attention of any room you enter. Jesse’s response? “It’s everything.”
As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over well. Soon the foreshadowing the movie has been doling out — a cougar that has snuck into Jesse’s dumpy hotel room, a horrific nightmare she has involving her landlord (Keanu Reeves) — explodes into the sort of outrageous gore for which Refn is mostly known. It might strike some as over-the-top, but for me it was in keeping with the gruesome, Brothers Grimm vibe the movie had been going for all along. After all, what’s a fairy tale without a full moon, witchcraft and some blood?