“What are you? A Mormon?”
A fairy-tale steeped in the most breathtakingly beautiful imagery I’ve seen in years, The Neon Demon benefits from a campy sense of humour, something that was really missing from Only God Forgives.
Refn kind of throws his entire narrative into air quotes, making it hard to discern what he is actually saying here. I think he builds his foundation on an idea he believes in; the fashion industry commodifies the male gaze, and that patriarchal abuse is internalised into these characters. But beyond that, his ideas on beauty, aestheticism, sex, and violence are vague, because everything is presented with an ironic tinge. On the one hand, he presents the fetishisation of beauty as destructive, but then films the entire thing built around that fetishisation. He resolutely refuses to show the models in an overtly eroticised manner, but then he eroticises violence surrounding them.
It’s tough to parse his intentions at any given moment, but that’s maybe what gives The Neon Demon its staying power. The actual narrative here is slim, but the ambiguities within it (regardless of depth) are vast.
And, beyond all of that, it’s just supremely well made. Everyone gives fantastic performances, despite the limitations imposed on them by Refn’s style. Elle Fanning sells a huge transformation with just the slightest of changes in body language. Abbey Lee gets the biggest laugh with a twitch of her lip, and Keanu Reeves is clearly having a blast being sleazy as hell. Despite all the serious subject matter and Refn’s formal distance, this is a fun time.