Nicolas Winding Refn’s superior follow-up to his painfully pretentious Only God Forgives still suffers from painful pretension, but it goes some way to re-establishing at least a semblance of narrative drive (but not as much as the narrative of Drive); what it does have, perhaps for the first time in his career, is something to say. It’s still style over substance, but there’s actually a little substance.
You might say very little substance, because the focus of his attack is a pretty shallow one – the modelling industry in Los Angeles – and the points he makes are pretty widely known: the girls starve themselves, they talk and think about their bodies in incredibly unhealthy ways, they are routinely degraded and humiliated, and they are asked to lie about their ages. But it’s the ferocity of NWR’s attack that gives his film some bite. At its heart, The Neon Demon is a ferocious, furious satire.
Elle Fanning plays a fresh face in Los Angeles, and it is that freshness that instantly attracts the vultures. A modelling agent (Christina Hendricks) tells her she’s going to be a star; the hottest (and meanest) photographer agrees to give her a test shoot; the coolest (and meanest) designer picks her for his show; the older models (like, three years older) feel threatened; and the nice boy who is nothing but respectful towards her gets tossed aside as she tastes the lipstick of success. But will success be everything she hopes for, or will it destroy her?
In other words, it’s a Hollywood story that has been around since the 1920s (but usually told about actresses, not models) but with a complete NWR aesthetic: neon, eighties-infused synth, outrageously perfect compositions, garishness, vulgarity and (what I imagine is deliberately) on-the-nose dialogue. NWR isolates Fanning as much as possible, assumedly to emphasise the barren loneliness of Los Angeles for the neophyte; if she’s not in a scene with an actual character, she’s on empty streets, in empty rooms. I don’t think there’s an “extra” in the entire film.
As is his wont, late in the film NWR goes overboard, and makes literal (or, to be more specific, makes completely fantastic) his metaphors by going into horror territory. He presents some truly disturbing imagery without ever really turning the thing into a “horror film”; instead, he maintains an atmosphere of dread throughout. In fact, by now, with ten features to his credit, I think we could define NWR’s work as “The Cinema of Dread”. It’s not for everyone, but it’s his.