The Neon Demon is a mischievous exercise in surreal satire, which takes the idea that fashion modelling devours its young, and spits them out when they’re past their sell-by date, to its logical and shocking conclusion. As one character says, ‘who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?’
With stylistic nods to David Lynch, Luis Bunuel, Bladerunner and Goldfinger, acclaimed writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) creates a sterile and airless world in which looks and style are everything. Its characters are mostly paper-thin types who speak their lines like the replicants in Bladerunner. Instead of psychological depth, we get a dream-like fairytale logic. Visually ravishing, the film lingers lovingly on its surfaces and its electronic soundtrack – 80s sci-fi synths and bleeps – emphasises its dehumanised coolness.
Jesse (Elle Fanning, so good in Super 8) is a 16 year-old model who has just arrived in Los Angeles looking for work. She is taken under the wing of make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and introduced to two other models who look like spoiled Barbie and Bratz dolls, and are jealous of her youth, innocence and unaffected beauty (‘is that your real nose? … God, life is so unfair’).
Feted by photographers and directors as ‘a diamond in a sea of glass’, Jesse has her head turned by the many people who want a piece of her. All too quickly, she goes from ‘deer in the headlights’ sweetness to hardnosed vanity, ditching her caring boyfriend and saying things like ‘women would kill to look like this’. Fanning is believably fragile as the innocent Jesse, but her transformation is ill-served by a patchy script.
About two-thirds of the way through The Neon Demon veers gleefully into horror territory and is all the better for it. Like us, Refn seems to lose patience with all the empty gazing at vacant models and goes for the jugular. We get dream sequences reminiscent of Twin Peaks/Nightmare on Elm Street, lesbian necrophilia, vampirism, a brutal murder and a blackly funny twist that one critic has compared to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou.
It is the extreme images that will linger in the memory, rather than the tediously stylish narcissism that precedes it. Cameos by Keanu Reeves as a sleazy motel manager and Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame are quickly forgotten.
Just before the finale it is a huge relief to be out in the Californian sunshine hurtling down Highway 1 in a convertible with a couple of demented models, engine screaming. It feels like we’re going to crash at any second and that we’re all going to hell.