The backstabbing cat-eat-cat world of fashion modeling gets the ‘Black Swan’ treatment in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest indie feature ‘The Neon Demon.’ With his two previous films, ‘Drive’ and ‘Only God Forgives’ (both starring Ryan Gosling), Refn has proven himself to be a controversial arthouse auteur who thrives on nihilistic ultraviolence and the moral ambiguity of his anti-heroes. ‘The Neon Demon’ is rather more subtle but packs a nasty punch in its own way with its depiction of what it takes and to what lengths people will go to be “the fairest of them all.”
‘The Neon Demon’ follows Jesse’s (Elle Fanning) meteoric rise in the world of fashion modeling on the glitzy LA scene. Blessed with no talents other than her mesmeric natural beauty (a modeling scout literally stared at her unblinking for nearly a full minute as if enraptured), she soon became the object of jealousy and scorn from her chief competitors, two smiling plastic blonde Barbies who make Rachel McAdams look like a saint in ‘Mean Girls’ by comparison. Naïve and self-absorbed herself, Jesse is only tragically and blissfully oblivious to the machinations going on around her leading to their inevitable WTF???!!! conclusion.
Like ‘Drive’ and ‘Only God Forgives,’ ‘The Neon Demon’ is bound to provoke and polarize critics and viewers alike. Its key characters are downright unlikeable and self-centered, the pace can be agonizingly slow and the final scene may cause more than a few head-scratches, but the movie is also a work of art in its beauty, attention to detail and surrealism. The reaction it elicits from the audience at various points will range from fascination to revulsion, and I suspect that’s exactly as Refn intended. Alas, ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Mulholland Drive’ it isn’t.