The latest film from Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) begins with a shot of Jesse (Elle Fanning) sprawled on a couch wearing a designer gown. The only thing that disrupts this image of beauty and luxury is the fact her throat seems to have been cut, her open eyes staring, blood splattered over her outfit and limbs. The camera pulls back as the soundtrack throbs, moving further and further away until we get enough distance to see that it’s all fake, a photoshoot staged by – we soon discover – Jesse’s gormless quasi-boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman). Everything that follows on is elaborating on that one startling image. It’s a high-fashion ad campaign selling the blood that pulses beneath flawless skin, and like a lot of ad campaigns it’s a lot more about making you feel than making you think.
Jesse is new to LA and looking to start a career in modelling. At first everyone wants to help; make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) takes her under her wing and invites her to a party where she meets the more experienced Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee Kershaw). But in the modelling business “more experienced” isn’t what sells, and soon the underage Jesse – who’s been advised to tell everyone she’s nineteen as eighteen is too “on the nose” - is a star on the rise. She’s still living in a sleazy motel (run by Keanu Reeves, playing an excellent dirtbag) and Dean is still hanging around, but she’s clearly on her way to the top – though in this sickly version of LA fame, that may not be the healthiest place to be.
"Like a lot of ad campaigns it’s a lot more about making you feel than making you think"
There’s a lot going on here, most of it visual; Refn (who slaps his initials over the credits like a fashion brand) takes the slick '80s aesthetic that was on the fringes of Drive and shoves it to the centre, aimed by a pulsing electro soundtrack from Cliff Martinez that gives the sleek settings and slickly dressed characters a menacing retro-future vibe. That – and a handful of shockingly memorable and bloodily surreal moments – are the hook this film’s “horror” tag hangs on; much of the film oozes menace without really backing it up.
At least there’s some variety in the menace. Sarah and Gigi react with almost instinctual hostility to Jesse, while Ruby seems more like a cat toying with a mouse – a view re-enforced when at one stage Jesse comes home to find a mountain lion waiting. The women are set at each other’s throats while the men who run the business look on: Desmond Harrington’s blank-faced photographer Jack is the gateway to success, while fashion designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) is happy to insult his models to their face.
It looks great, but hallucinations and occult tattoos aside there’s not much behind it all. The slumbering pace and reference-heavy visuals make easy to dismiss Neon Demon as not much more than empty provocation; Refn does it himself when he has Christina Hendrick’s modelling agent sniffily discard Dean’s blood-splattered photos. The performances don’t help, being more stiff and arch than naturalistic – Reeves’ aggressively grubby motel manager aside. But that’s as you’d expect: stocking this icy parody of high fashion with actual human beings would make the edifice crumble.
It’s Fanning who makes it all work, doing wonders with a subtle, finely tuned performance behind a blank façade. Innocent and decadent all at once, her character brings together everything the film gestures towards and makes it concrete. She’s a creature perfectly suited to a world where you have to be available for anything without letting any of it leave a scar.
Watch Nicolas Winding Refn movies at SBS On Demand