When young Jesse arrives in Los Angeles to pursue modeling, it isn’t long before she’s sprawled on a couch with her throat slashed. That’s the opening image of “The Neon Demon,” a tale of beauty, power and murder in the fashion industry. Jesse isn’t really dead — she’s just posing for a ghastly photo shoot — but this none-too-subtle example of foreshadowing will return to haunt all of us.
“The Neon Demon” is the latest from director Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish filmmaker with a taste for American noir and horror. If “Drive,” his 2011 crime-thriller with Ryan Gosling, paid homage to the wet-asphalt action-films of Michael Mann, then “The Neon Demon” is his tribute to Ridley Scott’s Euro-trash vampire flick, “The Hunger” (1983). And much like that film, “The Neon Demon” is a stylish, cynical, emotionally hollow chiller.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, an ingénue with the enormous eyes of an animé character. “No real talent,” she says of herself dreamily, “but I’m pretty.” She falls in with a creepy trio: two haughty models, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), and a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone). They form a sisterhood of sorts — at least until Jesse’s star begins to outshine the others’.
As those relationships curdle, Refn makes some salient points about our destructive notions of beauty. The models never look happy, healthy or autonomous, but thin, depressed and passive. They work in their underwear and allow men to manipulate them like mannequins. At the same time, Refn falls into his own trap: These women aren’t characters but symbols, and so the actresses aren’t allowed to act. They’re so emotionless and over-controlled that even Keanu Reeves, as a slimy motel manager, out-emotes them.
Add to all this the unfortunate cliché of the psychotic homosexual — a weak and thematically irrelevant plot-point — and “The Neon Demon” makes for a very problematic movie. At moments, it works as a dark satire or a piece of theory-driven shock-art. Eventually, though, the movie’s mockery and torture of beautiful women starts to feel exactly like what it decries: plain old misogyny.