From the very beginning of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, the protagonist, Jesse (Elle Fanning) is willing to sell herself to whoever’s buying. “I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty,” she says baldly. Underage, on her own, fresh out of small-town America, and fixated on a modeling career in LA, she can’t afford to have scruples about who she works for, or how they present her for the camera. The film isn’t shy about declaring that modeling is a form of prostitution, and that it kills the soul by rapid degrees. But one of the many fascinating, disturbing things about Refn’s film is just how suited Jesse is for soullessness. She starts off weak, but she’s never warm. She’s naïve, but she responds to predatory photographers and jealous models with what seems like an authentic eagerness to be exploited, if it gets her ahead.
Jesse is just the latest in Refn’s string of hard, intent protagonists who seem to have been born with their defenses intact and their hearts frozen. Characters like Ryan Gosling’s nameless getaway driver in Drive and Tom Hardy’s raging prisoner in Bronson are stronger for not having clear origin stories where their layers of armor were placed one by one: they’re mysteries, and they can only be judged by their outsized actions. Their unpredictability gives Refn’s films a violence-chic, where the focus is always on the nerve-racking possibility of something terrible happening at any moment. He makes personality studies focused on action — how the characters reveal themselves through what they do. And here, he gives that personality study a sickening weight, somewhere between body-horror and glam fairy tale.
For the first time, Refn is exploring that opacity through exaggerated femininity instead of fetishized masculinity. His male characters rage — sometimes loudly, sometimes silently — and his female stars aren't much different. They're more given to catty fencing and naked jealousy, but they still keep their motives and their capacity for violence hidden behind perfectly composed porcelain-doll faces, until they finally explode.
Jesse is "barely 16" when she comes to Los Angeles, looking for model work, and she's immediately in demand. The first agent who interviews her (Christina Hendricks) takes one look at her, then lays on her potential for success so thickly that it sounds like the setup for a scam, but she's entirely serious. Within the world of the film, Jesse has some indefinable "it," something that makes jaded designers and expressionless artists stop, look twice, and then gasp with admiration. It's a dark joke — whatever "it" is, audiences can only see it in the way people react to Jesse, and not in Jesse herself. She's no more attractive or vibrant than the other women who surround her, like admiring makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and her model friends Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). She's younger and more innocent, and there's still a softness and baby-fat roundness to her face. But it rapidly disappears as she enters a world that's literally objectifying, in that it wants to turn her into a sellable object.
"Are you food or are you sex?" Gigi casually asks Jesse, early on. Later, after an embarrassing audition, Sarah attempts to drink her blood, as if that might steal some of her power. A horrifying photographer (Desmond Harrington) strips her and applies body paint to her as if he's shaping a vase on the wheel rather than preparing a person for a picture. And a creepy motel manager (Keanu Reeves, in repulsive, energetic The Gift mode) openly regards her and other women as products waiting on his personal shelf.
Refn had his Neon Demon stars watch Russ Meyer’s infamous rock-star psychodrama Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls for inspiration, and that's no particular surprise: Neon Demon is lurid, lush, and overripe in the same sort of way, with a vulgar vapidity that's baffling and hypnotic at the same time. The film is all vibrant neon colors and shock-value images: Malone mounting and groping a grotesquely stitched corpse in a morgue, Reeves violating a sleeping woman with a knife, an act of symbolic cannibalism that's taken to graphically literal extremes. But most of the freak-show violence just feels like self-indulgent excess that distracts from a much more interesting story about Jesse willingly finding her level in what seems like a bottomless cesspit. Neon Demon reads like a vampire movie, with the sexy chill of The Hunger and the stark, hypnotic imagery of Under The Skin. But it's more absorbing when it keeps the vampirism symbolic than when it starts actually opening veins.
Fanning's performance gives Neon Demon a lot of its queasy power. Jesse is never a particularly sympathetic character, and by mid-film, she's thoroughly divorced herself from humanity. But Fanning gives her an elegance and a cool center that's separate from the icy scorn of the film's other career models. There's a surety to Fanning's portrayal that makes her immune to the petty envy other women focus on her, and that helps her rise above exploitative situations. Fanning makes being bought and sold as a product seem almost exalting, which makes it even clearer why the lesser success stories around her feel so hurt when they put themselves on the market and get rejected.
But there's still a petty overeagerness to Neon Demon, a Meyer-style tackiness that embraces empty metaphor at the expense of character development, or even a coherent story. The end of the film squanders the strength of the rest of the film, extending both the black humor and the symbolism past the breaking point, and holding on like a shaggy-dog story that doesn't know when to quit. (The actual story ends much earlier, as Jesse finds her peace with narcissism and the manipulated images of herself that other people create.) The heavy threat of sexual assault, physical consumption, and predatory control hangs over the film's treacherous first hour, but once the threat resolves, Neon Demon loses its tension and its power, and then just keeps going. Gigi's question "Are you food, or are you sex?" is strange and interesting when it's just a theoretical. Refn might have been better off not answering it.