Beautiful Agony: Refn’s ‘Neon Demon’ Is a Stylish Giallo Jolly Until It Tries to Get Real


Let me tell you all the good things about Nicolas Winding Refn’s high-art, lowbrow horror film The Neon Demon before I tell you what I will not tolerate.

After Drive, Refn seems obsessed with his idea of Los Angeles, one where there’s always a full moon, no traffic, and everyone is speeding in sports cars with the tops down. The Neon Demon is no different, though now Refn’s focused his energy on motels and modeling. Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in L.A., newly sixteen and aware that she’s pretty enough to make some money from it. With only moths in her metaphorical change purse, she holes up in a seedy motel, where manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) is aggressively creepy and blatantly pedophilic. Here you have the central fairytale dilemma of Refn’s L.A. stories: Will wholesomeness win out over corruption? Naw, probably not.

Jesse’s a quintessential innocent in a breezy goddess dress, while veteran models — and frenemies — Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) wear an armor of formfitting haute couture as they haze the new girl with talk about sex and “red rum” lipstick in a dance club’s vintage Thirties French Baroque bathroom. The many-mirrored restroom (borrowed from the historic Los Angeles Theatre) also reflects a multitude of velvet walls framing Jesse and her new makeup-artist friend Ruby (Jena Malone), while a hypnotic soundtrack from Cliff Martinez drowns them in dance beats.

Whether or not you connect with Refn’s brand of over-the-top violence, you can’t deny that his attention to color, texture, and music is nearly unmatched by other directors working today. Meticulously composed, each scene reveals a deep richness of production design, the camera lingering in slow motion (albeit sometimes a bit too long) to allow details like the peeling, sickeningly floral wallpaper in fresh-meat model Jesse’s dingy motel room to sink in. There are dual realities present: Jesse’s gritty, dilapidated living situation and the abstract surreality of her modeling work, where the world is literally filled with seductive shapes and colors.

At a “show” where a naked body bound in a few leather straps levitates, suspended in black nothingness, strobe lights splash purple and pink on the beautiful bodies of these women, but in the surreal modeling world, that’s just par for the course. Refn’s inventive with his choices to, say, depict a runway scene as Jesse in a black space barren but for neon triangles and a cave of mirrors where she can make out with herself. He’s also working within a tradition begun by the giallo directors of the 1970s, especially Mario Bava, whose fashion-themed horror Blood and Black Lace even shares a hypercolor palette with The Neon Demon.

And, just like giallo, Neon Demon eschews a cohesive story in favor of a “what if?” principle that moves it from scene to scene; Refn’s concern is the emotion of a moment, much like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, where the director has a naïve ballerina wander into a roomful of razor wire just because it looks cool and stirs deep audience tension. Also, The Neon Demon is as much about actual modeling as Suspiria is about ballet, so don’t be surprised when none of these women spend much time doing the actual unglamorous work.

Heathcote and Lee, both models in real life, are riveting as caricatures of the worst, most narcissistic humans. While the pretty slo-mo pictures of Jesse in extravagant clothes and makeup are interesting for a while, it’s Heathcote and Lee who carry the film. When Gigi chatters on about her plastic surgery, Jesse says she would never go under the knife because she “likes herself.” Gigi’s response: “I heard your parents are dead. That must be hard for you.” These carnivorous women circle their prey, and Refn emphasizes their threat with live and stuffed wildcats that pop up throughout the narrative. These women, this hungry destructive industry, are enough of a danger before the kill, but Refn makes a grave misstep, and here’s where I must speak about the intolerable in The Neon Demon.

Rape is not a fucking thriller plot point. It’s just not. People attempt to rape Jesse twice within the span of ten minutes, and while we don’t see a rape happen, we see one attempt and hear the excruciating screams of a thirteen-year-old girl getting raped in the room next to Jesse’s. Much of this film works because it’s a fantastical vision of a bleak world, but this moment departs in tone: It is too real. And it’s difficult to move on emotionally to each successive scene. The rape doesn’t build tension. It deflates. It’s lazy writing and filmmaking, so even if it achieves Refn’s goal of shocking us, it’s unoriginal and used by far too many male filmmakers as a cheap thrill. It would also be nice if the lesbian, Ruby, weren’t a psychotic sexual maniac, but at least in Neon Demon’s world, everyone else is too.