The Neon Demon is a faux-feminist thriller about the modeling meat factory that makes you wonder if writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) has ever met a real girl. His movies haven't. He writes innocent angels or doomed tramps, and sometimes the angels die, too.
Mostly, Refn prefers super-saturated tales about men and their fists, which is why, at first, the nearly all-female Neon Demon seems like Refn attempting to grow. Here, he swaps out quiet blonde hero Ryan Gosling for quiet blonde heroine Elle Fanning, playing a 16-year-old orphan named Jesse who moves to Los Angeles to make money being really, really pretty. So pretty that that rival models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) hate her on sight. So pretty that a makeup artist (Jena Malone) falls for her just as quickly. So pretty that in the film’s opening scene, she looks gorgeous lying dead-eyed on a chaise lounge with rhinestones glued to her face and her throat slashed. Blood soaks into the furniture. A camera flashbulb pops. Is this a photo shoot or a crime scene?
If you're into high-fashion magazines, you know the answer is a bit of both. Beautiful girls sell clothes and shoes by looking like corpses. Photographers sprawl them across cement and forests and stairwells with their slim knees and elbows twisted at unnatural angles and their skin photo-tinted a milky green. Jimmy Choo put a model in a car trunk next to a man digging a grave. Tyra Banks did an entire America's Next Top Model shoot where her ladies were bruised, stabbed, and strangled. These images are so common we forget that they're violent and bizarre. Cool dress, we think. And check out that awesome murder-motel carpet!
Refn nails Anna Wintour's dream look book. Instead of making fashion look like hot, fun sex — that cuddly Playboy style other movies mistake for glamour — his eroticism is icy and alien and, well, Vogue magazine-real. In front of photographers, his women pose like cruel Amazons. And when those cameras are gone and we're left with Refn's gaze, they're somehow even more inhuman. An all-female cast just gives him more ways to get women wrong. Here, women are so vain, they wear tight leather skirts to work at a mortuary. They never smile when they speak. They're either predatory lesbians or competitive and hostile. They bond, or attempt to, by droning, "I hear your parents are dead. That must be really hard for you." (The dialogue sounds like it's echoing in from a porno next door. When I grumbled about it, a friend replied, "Well, it's not like he can write good dialogue for men, either.") In front of a man, these women practically kill each other to be his favorite. And when they're alone, their only hobby is staring at themselves in a mirror.
Neon Demon almost works as camp. Supporting actress Lee senses that, and commits to everything: screaming, sobbing, snarling, attempted blood sucking. She's the only real runway model in the film, and knows exactly how to dominate the camera even as her character, an aging beauty in her early 20s, falls to pieces. She steals the whole movie, even scenes that are supposed to belong to Fanning. "People see you and they notice," sniffs Lee. "I'm a ghost." Hardly. Yet Lee is so good she nearly convinces us she's invisible, or at least self-defeatingly insecure. That she loses gigs to dear, sweet Fanning — a kid so passive I snorted when she boasted, "I'm not as helpless as I look!" — seems less a tribute to Fanning's modeling skills, and more like just one more sign that the business ain't fair.
The closest Refn comes to self-awareness is when he has Keanu Reeves, playing a sleazebag motel owner, recreate a scene straight out of Russ Meyer's cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, sneaking into a sleeping girl's bedroom and sliding a weapon between her parted lips. But Meyer was proud to make trash. Refn insists he's making art. And he's so overconfident that audiences will swoon for The Neon Demon's good looks that he ends the film right when it's finally getting interesting. He's barely typed a plot. But at least he took the time to brand the opening credits with his initials. Mirror, mirror: Who's the real narcissist?
This is a movie where a designer sneers, "Beauty isn't the only thing, it's everything," without a hint that this bold statement is as tired as Juicy Couture. (He may as well iron it in letters across his ass.) So what, then, does Refn actually think The Neon Demon is saying? To him, beauty is everything — it's all his movies offer. His films are so striking — colors that stretch across the screen, electronic beats that make your heart thump — they're like a pin-up in horn-rimmed glasses: they look smart, and we're content with the illusion. As for Refn's shocking revelation that the modeling industry is — gasp! — exploitative, I'd buy his outrage if he weren't continuously stripping his actresses to their underwear. In one scene, a dozen women sit in identical beige bras to convince us that, er, casting calls are dehumanizing. The camera lingers to make sure we get it, and then stays a while longer just because. The Neon Demon wants to have its cheesecake and condemn it, too.