Clint Luciantonio’s review published on Letterboxd :
Never has there been a movie that is so vulgar and yet so audaciously beautiful. Refn's Neon Demon does everything in it's power to confront your ideas of aesthetics and completely invert them to a new classification the likes of which have not been approached since the glossy works of Dario Argento. Salacious and exploitative. Gruesome and utterly disturbing. Refn has made the type of film that makes one reconsider their taste and reevaluate what they believe is "too much" when pursuing a theme or a style. For many, as the reviews have indicated, it was either too much violent content or too little story content that made them come down hard on Neon Demon as another failed follow up to Drive. I can understand that to a point, but Refn's film is just too expertly crafted and tonally precise to ever support the claim he had no idea what he was doing.
I felt the same way midway through. Following the gradual corruption of fashion star hopeful Jesse (a subdued Elle Fanning) , at first glance it seems to be a standard descent tale that exposes the vacuous atrocities of the fashion industry. As she makes connections, finds success, and climbs the ladder by just being so much more physically appealing than her barely older competitors, she changes and becomes self-absorbed, alienating her old life for a new stale and glamorous one. Refn has always been light on plot, but here he all but abandons a coherent narrative in favour of a disjointed series of context-less scenes. There are plenty of moments where it would be easy to get lost or not understand why we are being shown this scene or why that scene is important. And for many that was a deal breaker.
Even with that seemingly working against him, I could not but love this movie for its storytelling. This is form over content film making and even if we might not fully comprehend the context of a scene, the abundance of effective atmosphere it creates provides the context for you. Refn's film feels like getting lost in the neon soaked abyss of L.A's fashion circle, where everything is empty and artificial. The sets and scenes that he composes are so minimalist and unsettling that even the mood of a purely white room in one of the first photoshoot scenes shifts back and forth between sinister and tender. The lack of narrative if anything strengthens the overwhelming unease the design creates.
Refn has cultivated that glossy sheen of the 1980s as his personal style and here we see it working overtime for him. So many times my mouth dropped in appreciation of how gorgeously composed the colours of this film are and how saturated they. Every scene pops with its own distinct style and thanks to Refn's keen eye for cinematography, we see it all in shocking detail. No one stages quite like Refn and the best way to describe his shooting style is to compare it to a runway walk. Stiff, clean and effortless but calculated down to the most minute detail. It's a breathtaking film that arrests the senses, all of them in part thanks to the incredible soundtrack that sounds like a rave party crossed with a musicbox.
Yet, Neon Demon is also a film where you might be compelled to look away. Sure its beautiful, but it's also incredibly crass and bold. It touches on gore and death in obscene, over the top manners, but films it with the beauty of a perfume commercial. I for one applauded the fact that Refn was willing to jump to these extremes in his discussion of beauty, harmonising one's disgust with one's sense of pleasure to create of the most conflicting viewing experiences ever created. I completely understand why many could not see the beauty in this film because he's practically rubbing the more ugly side of the film in your face.
In the end, I was struck by Refn's film in a way I haven't been since Jonathon Glazer's Under the Skin. Slow and meticulous, it creates horror in its gorgeous visuals by catching you off guard and preying on your sensibilities. Neon Demon feels like a psychological expose on the fashion world, but its far too indifferent to the business to have anything pertinent to say. It may be easily misunderstood, in fact there are many aspects of the film that still puzzle me, but its unique and too focused to be wrote off as one director not having a clue.
In fact, this disturbing mess might be his masterpiece.