The Neon Demon, NWR’s latest piece of provocation (he’s like a more genre-motivated Lars Von Trier), begins with one of those visual and aural grand statements, a reclining model/mannequin(?) – the French word is the same for both – her throat severed and oozing blood while she stares transfixed at the camera lens. There will be a few more of these tableau-like shots before the movie is done, as if justified by the fashion milieu the characters inhabit. Meanwhile Refn has fun channelling Mulholland Drive and Abel Ferrara, with his sudden cuts and narrative non-sequiturs, low-life characters and atmosphere of dread. Even one of the actresses, Jena Malone, resembles Naomi Watts come back as a redhead.
So much for form, what of the ideas? Well, it begins as one of those ‘new girl in town’ tales which either end in the moral and physical degeneration of their disillusioned characters, viz. Mulholland Drive, or in their triumph, albeit often ambivalent, viz. All about Eve. But there’s a wrinkle in that the innocent Miss Fanning (great casting or not?) seems to elicit an uncommon amount of hostility on the one hand, and effortlessly court success on the other. The beauty is inward, you see. Which is fine until she rejects her solid, dependable boyfriend, and only friend in this peculiar world, and becomes a shade too full of her own pre-eminence. And pride comes before a fall, literally in this case.
As with Jonathan Glazer and Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, we move from an indestructible ingénue who carries all before her, to a compromised, half-human something on the sacrificial slab. If the message is simply, ‘Beware the fashion industry, it’ll eat you up’, then it seems a particularly small walnut to crack so heavy-handedly. And then there are the unanswered questions: what about Keanu Reeves’s sexual predator, and why doesn’t she just dial 911? And what of Malone’s lesbian mortician? If Jesse had played ball, would it have saved her life? And what’s that ooze she delivers onto the floor of her living room? And why does one model fail to stomach Jesse while her friend comes back for seconds?
Despite all these questions, it is an arresting piece of work, and chilling and obscure enough almost to guarantee a cult future.