Nicolas Winding Refn is such a manicured stylist that a horror thriller set in the fashion world seems like the perfect project for the Danish director. And The Neon Demon, a propulsive vehicle for lavish Eurotrash-y images, like the prismatic one of Elle Fanning feigning a make-out session with two of her diamond-refracted reflections, at first plays like a slicker version of Darren Aranofsky’s frenetic Black Swan—a formidable piece of cool, giallo-inspired genre work. Refn isn’t interested in pretensions of psychological depth, nor does the filmmaker adapt self-conscious art-film tropes like Black Swan’s Dardennes-esque tracking shots. In fact, discounting a few painfully awkward dialogue scenes, The Neon Demon’s first half makes the film seem like Refn’s most surface-level-satisfying work since Drive.
Refn’s latest, however, ultimately has more in common with the director’s previous film, the nightmarish, Bangkok-set drug-smuggling thriller Only God Forgives, which trafficked in a deplorable sense of morality, but at least felt like it revealed the director grappling with some deeply personal issues in the process. The Neon Demon, equally brutal and calculating in its acts of violence, also engages some really disconcerting ideas about women, and in particular beautiful women. Refn has said that he believes an obsession with beauty leads to a unique kind of madness, and that he’s seen it firsthand—in a career working with models for brands like Gucci, YXL, and Hennessy. The Neon Demon, though, isn’t interested in empathizing with this condition, but rather cynically reveling in it, and ruthlessly exploiting its abuses.
Fanning stars as Jesse, a 16-year-old aspiring model who’s instructed by the talent agency that signed her to tell co-workers that she’s 19 (“Eighteen is too on the nose,” her representative says). An older make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), becomes a sisterly figure for the recently orphaned Jesse, and tries to help her fit in by introducing her to Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), two veteran models who are at first amused, and later direly threatened, by Jesse’s rapid ascent within the competitive L.A. fashion world.
For a while, Fanning’s subtle combination of the fair and the feral seems like the perfect representation for a film that essentially forgoes horror tropes for a compelling look at beauty in constant but unrealized peril. In fact, The Neon Demon’s best scenes play on this tension—like the strobe-lit sequence that lights faces, from various striking angles, as they glower in frozen formation on the dance floor of a club, or the dramatic transition between an all-white to a pitch-black room during one of Jesse’s photo shoots.
Unfortunately, the simmering insinuations of The Neon Demon’s promising first hour eventually flower into full-on exploitation, with targets ranging from evil lesbianism to violence committed in the name of women’s sexual rivalries. The film loses the thread of whatever nascent commentary on male-imposed beauty standards it may have been building toward with the introduction of a handful of misogynistic side characters: a greasy motel owner, Hank (Keanu Reeves), who tries to pimp out a 13-year-old “lolita” in room 214; Jesse’s disgusted boyfriend, Dean (Karl Glusman); and a sexist fashion magnate (Alessandro Nivola) who has a mini-orgasm in his chair the first time he sees Jesse’s lithe, young body stride into his auditioning room.
Refn ultimately succumbs to his own fetishistic vices, filming a bloody shower scene like Carrie by way of Wild Things and playing one character’s indigestion following a cannibalistic episode for cruel comedy. The Neon Demon is a stylish satire delegitimized by its own lust objects—by a director who can’t stop getting off on the sick ideas he seemed like he might upend.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.