The Neon Demon wants you to know it’s taking itself seriously; the name itself sets that tone before you even begin watching. Literal or metaphorical demon? Neon light or Neon Genesis Evangelion (shout out to the anime fans) . Or if you want to think a little deeper (which you probably don’t but I’m going to annoyingly do anyway) Neon itself is a noble gas meaning it doesn’t usually react unless under immense pressure – is this the basic premise of the protagonists journey? The very title has evoked a certain reaction; my name has meaning, expect to watch a movie with meaning also. A little scathing perhaps, I do try my best to stay as impartial as possible when it comes to movies and I certainly could be reading into the title a little too much, but if you watch The Neon Demon you will see this isn’t the case. The Neon Demon is the fame monster, that hunger for celebrity at any cost, the demon inside taking control and claiming the fame, that girl willing to claw your eyes out and eat them to claim it for herself, the industry ready to pray on your naivety, the sins committed in the name of fame. The meanings go on but the essence of them all is clear - beware the limelight!
So knowing this, I expected to be taken on a sordid yet sophisticated and somewhat stylistic journey through the perspective of the young, wide-eyed Jesse (Elle Fanning) – small town girl with big town dreams turned nightmares. This aspiring model leaps into the industry and the industry devours her. Will she come out on the other end stronger? More mature? A battle-hardened survivor? Well, a big, fat (or as a designer would say, size 6) no. The Neon Demon is a cautionary tale that has high standards visually, but sometimes surrenders to the pitfall of pretension. It strives to cement its Art House status, but like an eager kid in a candy store, grabs everything at once and stuffs it into their mouth so tightly that they spit it all out at once and end up with a big multicoloured mess.
The theme of red is used heavily; blood, clothing, tablecloths, walls, the character Ruby (Jena Malone) – they all beckon the dire warning of danger and they provoke the anticipation of something sinister. This is most expertly executed in the beginning party scene; a red strobe light performance sees Jesse entranced and the focal point of her ‘friends’ Ruby, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). It’s an initiation, a sizing up and moment of trepidation; Jesse is in awe of the lights, the Neon Demon calls to her and all the while her fellow party goers are watching her, they see her beauty, they sense her potential and they have already decided what they want from her. The use of lights is truly beautiful, they are jarring and mesmerising at once. The cinematography is masterfully perfected.
However, some amazing cinematography in a few scenes does not make up for a poorly written film with awkward dialogue “But I'm pretty, and I can make money off pretty”. Jesse is the innocent, doe eyed dear in the headlights, and her fellow models want a venison steak served bloody rare. The dog eat dog world that controls these young ladies makes them do some silly, scary and often questionable things. But with so many ideas, thematic directions and symbolism apparent it’s hard to concentrate on one solid storytelling path. It is obvious that there are many interpretations, but one linear storyline has to take you by the hand and lead you down the path through the metaphoric forest of Art House storytelling, otherwise your just bombarded with too much to digest at once. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, even Mulholland Drive had more certainty than this. They are films that knew exactly what they were and delivered, The Neon Demon wanted to be something so bad that it tried everything. It requires you to wade through, trying to grip on to the essential storyline. It’s possible, but too tiring when all you want to do is be immersed in he movie.
The Neon Demon is stylish, it’s beautiful to witness, but it feels like a well made test run in anticipation of the second course. I can’t wait to see what Nicolas Winding Refn does next, but a little less style and a little more substance would make for a much more fulfilling meal.
3 out of 5 stars