If only Nicolas Winding Refn would loosen up a little. Before the festival, an early screenplay draft of The Neon Demon circulated on the internet. Filled with delightfully snarky dialogue and a few completely bonkers scenes, The Neon Demon promised to be something of lighter tone compared to the Danish director’s previous films, which were virtually completely devoid of any humor. Think the trashiness of Showgirls crossed with the cattiness of Mean Girls. But when the film unspooled on the Croisette on Friday, it turned out Refn had not lightened up. Much of the dialogue from the draft was gone, replaced by slightly disturbing scenes of necrophilia and an ending that was toned down a notch in insanity. A missed opportunity for Refn, especially since Paul Verhoeven, every bit Refn’s equal in terms of provocativeness, would show the world the next day with Elle how perversity combined with humor can be a tasty cocktail. The Neon Demon in comparison is just hard liquor, which, while presented in a beautiful glass, will not make you want more, unless you are looking for a headache.
Set in the world of high fashion, which makes its choice to locate the story in Los Angeles quite inexplicable, The Neon Demon follows the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old fresh off the bus from Georgia, hoping to make it big as a model. After a portfolio shoot which she hopes will land her a place at a high-profile agency run by Christina Hendricks, Jesse meets makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who seems eager to take the wide-eyed, small-town Jesse under her wing. The two head to a club, where they meet up with two of Ruby’s friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), both scarily skinny models. Also following them to the club is the photographer who did Jesse’s shoot, Dean (Karl Glusman, who gained Croisette fame last year when starring in Gaspar Noe’s arthouse porn disaster Love). Dean is clearly infatuated with Jesse, but his slight awkwardness makes it clear that if Jesse does not run into any obstacle on her path to success, Dean will at some point be left by the wayside. In the meantime though, Dean is a friend Jesse can rely on when she hits trouble at the dingy motel she calls home, trouble partially provided by the motel’s sleazy manager Hank (stuntcasting Keanu Reeves, who could have amped up the sleaze a little more). As Jesse quickly begins her ascent to supermodel stardom, jealousy grows in Sarah and Gigi, who would do anything to be in Jesse’s place. And this ‘anything’ includes some drastic measures.
The jealousy is fed by the idea, as presented in the film, that Jesse is a one-in-a-million beauty, a girl with instant attraction and charisma. The problem is that casting Elle Fanning in the role of Jesse does not fulfill this idea at all. Fanning is undoubtedly goodlooking, but her girl-next-door appearance and Jesse’s naiveté make it hard to believe big designers and agency heads see the ‘It’ factor in her. Especially when she is up against someone like Abbey Lee, who actually does possess that je ne sais quoi beauty that makes her stand out from the crowd. Fanning fits the role of small-town girl with big dreams, but her transition to glam is all too quick and not at all believable, just as her insecure, deer-in-headlights demeanour turning into confident vamp is not presented as a natural progression.
A bigger problem, however, is Refn’s insistence on sticking to his regular manner of brooding, highly stylized seriousness, when the dynamic between the four girls and the deliriously crazy ending ask for a less controlled, more acting-focused film. His approach sucks the life out of the story, which, however trite and stale it is, could have provided some entertaining camp if Refn had made The Neon Demon a lot more tongue-in-cheek. Refn seems to think his film is much deeper than it really is, but his message about how our society’s obsession with beauty can lead to madness isn’t exactly revelatory. The director’s history in shooting ads for Gucci and H&M ensures that the film looks good, and we wouldn’t expect anything else after Drive and Only God Forgives, but aesthetic beauty can only get you so far, and after a while The Neon Demon becomes a rather dull affair that no amount of necrophilia can undo (come to think of it, necrophilia probably never made anything better). Refn dresses up the film to hide the fact that the content goes only skin deep, so when we reach the climax of the film and its coda, which was strong in the early version of the screenplay, the impact is lessened because of both its weak treatment and the audience’s relief that the film is over. The Neon Demon is neither scary nor thrilling, neither titillating nor thought-provoking. It is a glossy shell, done by a man who has all the skills, but very little to say.