“I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write. No real talent. But I’m pretty. I can make money off pretty.” Sixteen years old, Jesse (Maleficent‘s Elle Fanning) has arrived in the neon lit glass jungle of Los Angeles. Clutching a handful of stark and daring glamour shots taken by the adoring and hopeful Dean (Karl Glusman), lounging in a pool of her own (fake) blood, she manages to obtain a contract with agent Roberta Hoffman (Lost River‘s Christina Hendricks) who tells her to always say she is nineteen. An obvious lie, is it to protect her or to make her even more desirable?
In the sun scorched city, Jesse is the star everyone orbits, with Dean following her like a lost puppy and makeup artist Ruby (The Hunger Games‘ Jena Malone) watching out for her. “Don’t worry, honey,” Ruby tells the painfully naive and apparently vulnerable Jesse. “That “deer in the headlights” thing is exactly what they want.”
The third of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films to be entered into competition at Cannes following Drive and Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon is immeasurably stylish and would have been unmistakable as the work of the challenging and often contentious Danish writer/director even had his initials not been branded on the opening credits.
Composed of vivid pulsing reds, blues and purples, the only space not so lit are the humble motel rooms Jesse retreats to, dull wallpaper and linens carrying the sweat of a thousand former occupants, but beneath her innocent exterior Jesse is not so pliant as she appears, aware of the effect she has on others, a fruit waiting to be picked and all the men want to be first, whether she is ripe or not.
And they do; hot photographers and fashion designers alike (Dexter‘s Desmond Harrington and A Most Violent Year‘s Alessandro Nivola) reinvent her as a golden goddess in provocative covers shoots and select her to headline the catwalk, passing her over more experienced models such as Ruby’s friends Sarah (Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies‘ Bella Heathcote), stick thin bitches with jealous tempers as all-consuming and brittle as their bodies look.
An object perceived by others, most often through the camera lens, it echoes both Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in that illusion is everything, the girls projecting perfection, the artists projecting their visions on them, the whole projected on the cinema screen; certainly Ruby’s miserable transference of desire recalls Betty Elms in her apartment in 2001 and is as divisive of audiences as Mark Lewis’ home movies of 1960.
More impressionistic than narrative, the impact of the visuals as immediate as the high fashion shoot it recreates as when a red strobe light picks out Jesse’s smile in the darkness of a club, it is an examination of the vanity in a culture which exploits and demeans those who have it, reflected in the sparse performances which cannot show the pain underneath, their empty beings focused into a hard shell which they cannot allow to crack. “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” Jesse is told, but beauty is only skin deep, and under the skin everyone bleeds.
Deeply reminiscent of Mulholland Drive, there is no reason why The Neon Demon should not recall Lynch’s mystery, also shown at Cannes and later Oscar nominated, set in the shadowy streets and clubs of the same city, riddled with duplicates, parallels and reflected identities, both astonishing and frustrating as they dissect leading ladies who inhabit ethereal worlds where success requires sacrifice and sooner or later everyone will suffer the bruises and cuts of the hard edges of reality.