Tale as old as time, Beauty and the Beast. In a world where daily headlines splash trauma, deceit and lies between women in a race to the top, it’s not uncommon to read of stiletto heels brutally trampling atop one another in the pursuit of stardom. There’s no denying that director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest offering floats on a heady cloud of divine cinematography that won’t disappoint fans of his previous blockbuster hit-smash ‘Drive’. His use of color, light and sound [thanks to the hypnotic compositions of Cliff Martinez] are all impeccable throughout the feature. The three combine to create a gently swirling pool of precision meets nostalgic hedonism; devising an unpredictable feast for the eyes. Unfortunately, beneath the slick veneer there is little substance to behold – perhaps a fitting microcosm of a society where women are driven to click, scrape and sculpt their way ambitiously into oblivion.
With the help of technical master and cinematographer Natasha Braier, the pair craft an atmosphere of hypnotising claustrophobia from the onset. This feeling of constriction uneasily mirrors the existence in which so many women absorb themselves daily; flitting mindlessly between one social media platform and another, unearthing new insecurities, desires and all the while silently competing. The corridors, dark corners and concealing fringe curtains are gentle cues towards the way in which the media manipulates cravings for new and evermore cunning ways to outdo each other.
The way in which Refn portrays his female cast members as both naive and hungry in equal measure says much about the current understanding of the female psyche. There’s no question as to whether or not they are on a mission to scratch out each other’s eyeballs – quite literally. And so if Tina Fey’s ‘Mean Girls’ demonstrated the power behind the phrase “I can’t help it that I’m popular” then ‘Neon Demon’ shows the dangerous effects of a generation of women who have grown up chanting this mantra quietly to themselves. These, along with various other questions about the effect of the fashion industry on women today are dissected throughout the course of the film.
Featuring a fresh-faced Elle Fanning alongside co-stars Abbey Lee Kershaw, Bella Heathcote and Jena Malone – even an unshaven Keanu Reeves as the sleezy Motel manager, Hank – Refn combines these characters who collectively lead to the untimely end of leading lady Jesse. In her role as the epitome of untampered youth – an attribute described in one scene by fashion mogul Jack [Desmond Harrington] as “the highest prize” – Jesse is new to L.A., and at just 16 an innocent natural beauty. No wonder fellow models Gigi [Heathcote] and Sarah [Kershaw] are immediately threatened by her presence. Despite their outwardly unfaltering confidence – held in place perhaps only by layer upon layer of plastic surgery – it’s clear from the start that between them they have already began to plot her demise; exchanging raven-eyed glances under the watchful eye of make-up artist Ruby [Malone]. Her character is perhaps the most complex of the supporting roles. She at first appears more interested in the malleability of young Jesse, and can be followed in her feeble attempts to groom her. My initial eye-rolling at the inclusion of a tired lesbian obsession cliché soon faded as I realised that it served only as a means to enhance fears around the real threat, that of the most dangerous female relationship – of a woman’s love affair with herself.
As Jesse tells Dean herself she is well aware of the high-price placed on her beauty – “I have no real talent, but I can make money from pretty”, she smiles. Learning that the men she comes into contact with are just as likely to bring her roses in the dead of night as to break in and deep-throat her sleeping form with a knife, the message is loud and clear – as a woman you should remain wary of either. If all of those around you [quite regardless of gender] seek to either manipulate, extort, rape, or potentially cannibalise you – why not invest all of your affection in the only person you can truly rely on? That person being yourself.
Flashes of inspired brilliance are scattered throughout: a blood-soaked cougar stalking fresh meat across Jesse’s motel bed, Sarah licking the oozing blood from Jesse’s palm cut by shards of the mirror she smashed out of jealousy; a desperate attempt to suck her very ether. The swinging of Jesse’s heeled toe as her alter-ego develops under the heat of glowing praise. When Ruby fails to seduce Jesse, she turns first to rape and later necrophilia with a corpse that vaguely resembles her form. Refn cleverly juxtaposes these most violent and disturbing of acts with those of Jesse masturbating alone – setting the two acts on screen in parallel to one another. In a separate scene Jesse can be seen avoiding a well-meant kiss from her love interest Dean [Karl Glusman] but later passionately kissing her own reflection as she slides down the runway to close the show. For a girl who claims to have never had a romantic relationship and shivers nervously in-front of the camera lens, she seems increasingly confident, erotic – sexualised even, as her success grows. Not by those coveting her affection however, but from within. Thus highlighting the increasingly menacing epidemic of widespread narcissism.
Perhaps then, the ‘Neon Demon’ that gives the film its title is not the flashing strobes of the paparazzi glare as one might have predicted – but the unassuming light that illuminates every young girls’ mirror, her self-obsessed Instagram feed, her perfectly-staged selfies. As Gigi, Sarah and Ruby cooly engineer Jesse’s death and eat her flesh in hope of increasing their own chances of success, flashbacks of Paul Verhoeven’s ’95 erotic drama ‘Showgirls’ spring to mind. But as the plot unravels and swiftly declines into trashy B-Movie status in its last disappointing moments I was left with a sour taste in my mouth. Does Sarah’s nauseating defiance at the movie’s close really reflect the woman we seek to idolise today? Unfeeling, inhuman and cruel; fighting tooth and nail to remain in the spotlight against all odds. When will we stop pitching women against each other for entertainment and instead allow them to encourage each other, form bonds to nurture, support and grow. Aside from being well-lit and soaked in a swoon-inducing soundtrack, one question still hangs heavy in the air – has the female of the species begun to turn in on itself? Indulgently devouring its own ever-more tempting of tails.