From the Archives: The Neon Demon review

From the Archives: The Neon Demon review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

Find something beautiful. Befriend it. Try to control it. Try to own it. Drain it of all of its beauty. Consume it. Digest it. Excrete it. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. It’s this cycle of consumption facing the barbed tip of Nicolas Winding Refn’s luminous satirical spear in The Neon Demon, a mesmerizing fever dream that’s sure to divide every audience. There were 8 walkouts at my screening which mirrors the wall of boos and jeers which were hurled during the film’s premiere at Cannes. But much like the other half of the Cannes crowd, I found the film to be near perfect. As much a brutal indictment of image consciousness as it is a showcase for the inimitable visual talent’s of the auteur behind the lens, The Neon Demon demands to be consumed, wrestled with, submitted to. If you can stomach the queasy mean-spiritedness on display, you owe it to yourself to see this one on a big screen with great sound (in the theater, ya dingus!).

“Are you food, or are you sex?” Rudy (Jena Malone) asks this of Jesse (Elle Fanning) as they talk about makeup in the disturbingly quiet bathroom of a hyper-stylized nightclub. They’ve only just met, but the world of an aspiring model is one of exposure. Let it all hang out. Rudy notes that most makeup is named after food or sex, hinting at humanity’s two most primal desires. If you want to be wanted, which is the modus operandi of so much of the modeling world, you must either be one or the other. Food or sex.

Jesse has just arrived in Los Angeles. She’s 16. Well, 19 according to the agency. “Always 19. 18 is just too on the nose,” her agent says. She has no family, no friends, and is living out of a seedy motel in Pasadena. She doesn’t have much to her name, but she does have *it*. No, I’m not talking about a copy of the Stephen King novel, I’m talking about that magnetic quality that drops the jaws of all who come across her. When Jesse walks into an agency, she signs. When she walks down the runway, she shines. When she auditions, she gets the job before even so much as striking a pose. And the scariest part about her is that she doesn’t know it … yet.

The Neon Demon follows Jesse’s self-discovery – the spawning of the power within her that she is only slightly aware of and is perhaps too naive to wield safely. It’s hypnotic to watch the world around her turn to molten lava as she prances through without second thought, and it’s frustrating to watch her wantonly flow into the lava, becoming the fire. We want her to succeed, but we relish as she crumbles, and we wonder helplessly who is to blame.

Refn’s lens is a living thing. The film pulses and breathes during every moment. We slowly zoom in. Inhale. We pull back. Exhale. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Suddenly the screen goes white, the camera static. We hold our breath, clench our fists, and nervously await confirmation that everything is okay. Sometimes we get relief, but never is everything okay. Never is anything okay.

Add to this the pulsing soundtrack, er score, and what felt soothing and urban in Drive, foreign in Only God Forgives, feels as cold and intense as a drug trip gone wrong in an unfamiliar metropolis. But this isn’t style for style’s sake. Refn is working up an aggressive takedown of image, all the while delivering a technically proficient, overtly image-conscious product. It’s meta in a way that isn’t winking at you. And it hurts when you get it.

The scariest part of it all is Elle Fanning. She has the aforementioned *it*, and her performance in The Neon Demon shows us that she knows all about it. She is, to quote Jesse, “dangerous.” If she’s this good, this young, look out.

A skeevy designer advises our star, “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” I think Nicolas Winding Refn just made a strong case against this notion. The Neon Demon is a beautiful film, but it is so much more.

I’m gonna go take a bath.

The Neon Demon opens today in Philly area theaters.

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