The Neon Demon is about the deadliness of artifice, the predatory nature of corporate industry built on facades, on what lies without rather than within, and in a literal, horrific sense, what such artifice can do to you. Yet the message, ultimately, is defiantly obtuse.
Nicolas Winding Refn remains a director distant to me, having not seen any of his back catalogue before watching The Neon Demon, but his reputation for slick style has divided plenty of people over multiple films. Are his movies visually striking and profound or is there no substance behind the colourful, vibrant thrills? That question definitely remains open by the end of The Neon Demon, perhaps more than films such as Bronson or Drive on which he built his name, and growing reputation as an auteur. This is a picture capable of providing as much revulsion as appreciation.
For me, the feeling was fascination. The Neon Demon comes across as very self-referential and self-aware, even while being deliberately enigmatic and metaphorical. In a way, the very construct and context of the film parallels the lead character, Jesse (played with knowing, entrancing guile by Elle Fanning). She begins as a fresh-faced, orphaned, quiet upstart in the fashion industry of Los Angeles and ends up a vampish, abused, self-destroyed victim plunged into an arthouse horror picture by the conclusion. Refn’s film takes the same path: it knows how beautiful it is but increasingly becomes consumed by the horror lurking behind the mirror.
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