The Neon Demon ★★★★½

"Beauty isn't everything. It's the only thing."
"I don't want to be them. They want to be me."
"Are we having a party or something?"

If all of these strings of dialogue sound like taglines, it's because they might as well be. As anyone who is willing to sit through The Neon Demon might come to realize, Nicolas Winding Refn has crafted an entire film out of pitches. By no means is that an insult to the film. Nicolas Winding Refn isn't about all those criticisms folks lob against him. Style over substance doesn't mean shit and The Neon Demon sits itself right in front of the audience, cocks its head to the side, and poses with its middle finger right at the camera.

Calling The Neon Demon Refn's most fully-realized work is something I hesitate to do with one viewing, but it's hard not to make that statement after witnessing a work of art that is so smartly woven together in its constant ability to self-contradict. It's at once the most indulgent thing he's ever produced and the most restrained, always touching upon this and that but refusing to let the audience get more once he's given them a taste. Club scenes? Here's that. Romance? Some of that too. Lesbians? Mmm, why not? Gore? Just a touch. Necrophilia? Oh, alright, enjoy. Cannibalism? Hooray!

For every claim of dialogue being stilted or bad, Refn and his co-writers (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) laugh harder, just as the audience should be laughing at the clearly intentional scripting. Every line is pointed, sharp as a knife, and it goes beautifully hand in hand with the way Refn directs and stages his performers. Yes, these are actors - each one committed to the sometimes thankless and often emotionally void roles they're in - but they're more like mannequins come to life. Rare exceptions to that blankness come in the film's few visceral, truly exciting moments, inserted sparsely in an otherwise deliberately slow film, easy to consider boring by most viewers. In fact, the a fair share of the audience at my free screening walked out before the last act.

That is, to bluntly say, there's a whole lot of nothing going on. A whole lot of nothing complemented by gorgeous visuals and a score that's both killer and almost romantic, as though we're meant to be seduced by the film's beauty just as characters are seduced by Elle Fanning's beauty. Ultimately, if a plot were begged for, it'd simply be that an aspiring model gets both everything she wants and everything she doesn't want because of her overwhelming beauty. And beauty is what Refn trades in, with his cinematographer Natasha Braier (who shot the equally exquisite, though entirely aesthetically different, The Rover). These are painstakingly composed shots through and through and, amusingly enough, the ones drenched in neon that feel ripped out of a giallo-themed music video aren't even the most impressive.

Take, for instance, a moment when the camera slowly pans across a shoot backdrop that's simply blank space, so much so that it looks at though Fanning and a minor co-star are standing in and walking on nothing at all. As ridiculous as this might sound, it's eerily reminiscent of Chuck Jones' "Duck Amuck"; where Daffy Duck is molded to the artists' whim on this blank screen, so is Elle moved to the photographer's whim, and to Refn's off-screen. Many will note Under the Skin as a comparison point for this scene, as well as others in which the white backdrop is switched for vast blackness, but where Jonathan Glazer's film trades in existential dread and dedicates itself to horror, Refn is all about giddiness.

And, in all honesty, those grasping at straws on whether or not Refn is trying to make a critique on the fashion industry or is being misogynistic due to that same line of thinking are rather off-base. By no means is The Neon Demon making a statement about vapidity in models or how shallow everyone is, though he does get a good laugh at taking all of those features that are regularly exploited on screen and blowing them out of proportions. Everyone is an exaggeration, and it only takes one model looking at another and bitterly saying, "I heard your parents are dead," in the film's first minutes to place emphasis on the fact that this is not a film to be taken seriously.

To close this long-winded piece, I'll quote Ross Birks' review, which more or less mirrors mine in enthusiasm and descriptions both: "There are moments of repulsive beauty in The Neon Demon, and extremities so ridiculous they become glorious. For the majority of its running time the film feels like a perfume ad laced with arsenic but by the end it thrills in the way pure, down and dirty horror movies thrill. We first meet Jesse covered in fake blood posed like a Prada-clad slasher victim for a photo-shoot and by the end, naked women are showering themselves clean of the real thing. There is a glee to the violence and a humor that Refn isn’t afraid to ask his audience to indulge in and enjoy. It rewards you with the visceral experience that many felt Only God Forgives promised but sorely lacked. By the time the film is alternating between lesbianism, necrophilia and cannibalism on a scene-by-scene basis you can’t help but shrug, laugh and go along for the ride."

Juan liked these reviews