I’ve been very distracted of late and not paying my best attention to anything beyond my own misery. Anxiety August, in other words, is going great. I am working my way slowly out of it though and will be back to normal soon, I have no doubt.
Until then there is this film which is definitely on the more unusual end of the spectrum. I’d seen it and discussed it before for the podcast and don’t remember liking it all that much. But for some reason when searching for a film for this week’s post I had a hankering to revisit.
The Neon Demon (2016)
When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.
Beauty is a curse, innit? Well, apparently. Most of us mere mortals will never know the feeling of being so universally desired that people from all walks of life want a piece of you – and not always in the healthiest way.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) knows though, lord does she know. She pretends otherwise because that’s good grace and becoming of a small-town girl just rocked up in the City of Angels. But she knows her power and her power is great.
Alone and family-less, Jesse soon meets make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) on a shoot and the older girl takes our ingenue under her wing. This basically involves taking her to a fun party and introducing her to two fellow models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) who are immediately threatened by Jesse’s youth and good looks. In an agonising bathroom scene, the women ponder who Jesse is fucking and which parts of her body are ‘real’.
This gives us an insight into the bitching and backstabbing of the beauty world and frankly, who would want it? These girls do though and their womanly relationships do not thrive in direct competition with one another. When Jesse attends a catwalk casting, despite having no walking experience, she nails her audition smuggly in front of Sarah, who is visibly devastated.
Later, there is an altercation between the two which takes a dark tone and Jesse is injured. She’s fine but it’s dramatic because that’s this film, isn’t it?
Meanwhile, Jesse is also having to deal with dating an older man, the creepiness of her motel landlord and the increasingly intense affections of Ruby. Her career is going from strength to strength though, so what does she care?
Well, things turn darker still when her rivals decide they’ve had enough of this comely little newcomer and Ruby, feeling rejected, instigates something terrible.
TND is rife with symbolism, with comments on society’s obsession with youth and beauty – and an awful lot of it is pretentious af. Plus, I doubt I understood it all and I sort of like the film for that.
Fanning’s performance doesn’t require an awful lot of skill. She merely pouts and looks doe-eyed 99% of the time and it works for her. Jena Malone’s somewhat sneaky Ruby is probably my highlight, though some of her motivations in the name of desire aren’t to be sniffed at.
As with other Refn movies, this is a highly stylised world view and could be held up as a perfect example of style over substance.
Every frame is perfectly structured and the lighting particularly is sublime but you expect that. But is it any good beneath the neon facade? I think it’s weirdness makes it above average, if not the best film ever made.
When James and I discussed this for the podcast, I remember us drawing parallels with some fairytale elements and I still feel that here. Jesse’s the innocent left out alone in the world, coming up against all manner of threats, including The Big Bad Wolf (Keane Reeves) and the Three Witches.
And Jesse, she’s not so innocent after all. Every sweet smile, every slanted look is perfectly contrived. She’s her own cautionary tale.
4/5. Better the second time round. Still pretentious though.