"Beauty isn't everything. It's the only thing," says a character named Sarno in Nicolas Winding Refn's latest, THE NEON DEMON. It may take years for me to finally decide whether I love this film or hate it, but it seems to demand an extreme reaction. It's too precise an assault of seductive antagonism to simply be written off. At no point in its nearly two-hour running time is there any question that we're in the hands of a capable cinéaste who loves his job and his medium. The film is ripely, even opulently cinematic, but - as with Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN (2014) - there is a bland, even soporific thinness about the material, like a logline read through a heroin haze, so void of emotion it feels like an alien transmission draped in scenic alacrity. It's like a story sent from such a great distance that its teller died inside before he could finish.
Sumptuously photographed by Natasha Braier (THE MILK OF SORROW, THE ROVER), the film comes as close as anything I've seen to embodying this century's answer to SUSPIRIA. It shares the same muffled sense of dangerous portent when our heroine Jesse (Elle Fanning - a Jess Franco reference?), while cleaning up after modelling as the proverbial "centerfold in a PLAYBOY layout from Hell", happens to meet Ruby (Jena Malone, excellent), a makeup artist straddling work on Hollywood sound stages and in Hollywood funeral homes. The point couldn't be clearer: the perfection to which these characters aspire is Death - painted, available, unyielding, cold as Fassbinder. Jesse's barely sixteen; she's only been in town for a week and she's spending what's left of her runaway funds on a motel on the Sunset Strip. Almost overnight, she becomes LA's flavor of the week. Let's call that foreshadowing.
We never get to know Jesse. I'd like to praise Elle Fanning's performance, but as Gertude Stein once said of Los Angeles, "There is no there there" - which was almost certainly everyone's goal. No one may want it (or even remember it) a month from now, but Jessie's carnate form has momentarily cornered the market on "pretty." She has "that thing," as someone says. (Something else called "that thing" later turns up in her motel room.) She knows how to walk in ways the other girls can't. She finds an agent (Christina Hendricks, capable in a throwaway guest part) who advises her to lie about her age ("People believe what they are told") and a famous self-absorbed photographer (Desmond Harrington) who sees something in her that he wants to experience on a closed set. It literally happens overnight. The young hopefuls whom she replaces in the city's selective consciousness come to hate her. Those who cannot be her want to drink her blood. She's Bowie before you know it.
Where the film goes from there I should leave to your own discovery, but believe me when I tell you this is a far darker vision of Hollywood than Nathanael West envisioned in DAY OF THE LOCUST or David Lynch proposed in MULLHOLLAND DRIVE. The emphatic male gaze of the piece may seem sexist, but alien as it seems, the film (one hopes) is profoundly humanist and about sexism and objectification, as the two women sharing its byline with Refn (including PREACHER story editor Mary Laws) would probably agree. In an ambivalently direct yet metaphorical way, THE NEON DEMON depicts Hollywood as a murderous mediocrity that tirelessly preys upon and eradicates anything found on its turf that is possessed of genuine quality. And, by extension, it shows us how - in this day and age - cinema of genuine substance is being savaged to the brink of extinction by "creatives" who hate it because they cannot possibly compete with it.
In a bizarre coda that I found simultaneously off-putting yet pregnant with meaning, Refn presents us with a metaphor for the most basic of Hollywood laws: If you don't have the stomach for fame, someone else will.
THE NEON DEMON comes to Blu-ray next month, but is already available for streaming via Amazon Video.