The Neon Demon


★★★★★

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves

Film Review by Hannah Sayer

In a recent Empire podcast, Nicolas Winding Refn responded to the discussion of the provocative reaction his film received at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with the statement ‘I am Cannes’. The Neon Demon is the third consecutive film directed by Refn to have premiered at the festival and it was met with both violent boos and a well deserved 10 minute standing ovation. Without Refn regularly challenging Cannes audiences, the film festival would certainly be a significantly duller and more conventional affair. It’s Refn’s ability to create such diverse reactions by simultaneously impressing and repulsing his audiences which makes The Neon Demon, like his previous films including Bronson, Drive and Only God Forgives, another unforgettable experience.


Elle Fanning stars as beautifully naive sixteen year old Jesse who arrives in Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming a model. Her captivating presence quickly lands her an agent, played in a brief role by Christina Hendricks, and Jesse is seen as the new ‘it’ girl and a force to be reckoned with on the runway. She meets make-up artist Ruby, played by Jena Malone, who she forms a close bond with and she introduces her to two beauty obsessed models, played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, who are only concerned with their own physical perfection and success. It is their extreme jealousy which causes Jesse to fall victim to the bright lights of the modelling industry.

With particularly bold and impressive performances from Elle Fanning and Jena Malone, The Neon Demon takes you on a shocking and unexpected journey that it is difficult to think about anything else afterwards. From the opening shot the viewer is plunged straight into this chaotic and visually daring world as Jesse’s first photo shoot resembles a graphic murder scene. Much of the horror comes from Refn’s controversial visual comparisons between beauty and death. An example of this comes later on in the film when the viewer learns that Ruby is both a makeup artist for dead bodies in a morgue as well as for these beautiful models. Refn’s subtle parallels of beauty and glamour with violence and death serve as a parody as well as an expertly exaggerated take on how we consume and gaze on beauty in modern society.

Natasha Braier’s cinematography is mesmerising and arresting in every sequence and Refn’s frequent collaborator Cliff Martinez provides the intoxicating score. With Refn enlisting Polly Stenham and Molly Laws to co-write the screenplay, the film feels distinctly collaborative, as well as unusually feminine for a film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Audiences will be used to seeing Refn explore masculinity in various forms throughout his past films so it is refreshing to see a filmmaker challenging his own style. Even though The Neon Demon is extremely different from his past work, when you see what is captured on screen it is unfathomable to imagine a depiction of the modelling industry as frightening being directed by anyone else. The bold and impressive takes, score and dialogue coincide to create a hypnotic, lurid and heightened exploration of the horror beneath the surface of beauty.

With everything from shocking acts of violence to necrophilia and cannibalism, Refn definitely shies away from conventional narrative and character development. Every moment of The Neon Demon is an extreme and exciting visual spectacle of female jealousy and the ruthless women who will go to great lengths to devour and consume Jesse’s beauty.

‘Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.’

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