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Nicolas Winding Refn Fails Upward

‘The Neon Demon’ is a beautiful mess — and his best movie yet

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Late in Sofia Coppola’s ripped-from-the-headlines feature The Bling Ring, an intrepid crew of Hollywood gangsters — that is, a group of bored teens from Calabasas — breaks into Lindsay Lohan’s house to steal her clothes. They’ve already been to Paris’s place. They’ve already done numbers on Rachel Bilson and Orlando Bloom. They need more. They target not merely the rich and famous but, much more specifically, the young and fashionable. People worthy of imitation, whose rows and stacks of designer shoes and couture unfurl on screen like supermarket aisles. These kids treat celebrities’ bedroom closets like boutique fitting rooms. They aren’t just stealing; they’re shopping.

So when the group’s ringleader, Rebecca (Katie Chang), is transfixed by the sight of herself in Lindsay Lohan’s mirror, we’re transfixed, too. Can’t help it. We see her try Lindsay’s perfume in slow motion, watching it play out in one long, eerily drawn-out gesture. We see right into her innermost sense of self-satisfaction. Fashion’s power in an image.

The heart of The Bling Ring is the self you can’t merely be or have, but have to steal. Has Nicolas Winding Refn seen it? His newest feature, The Neon Demon, is in some ways about the same idea. It’s a movie about the allure of the beautiful, but here, the people helplessly drawn to beauty are the beautiful themselves: They are the models, not the customers. Here, the price of consumption is getting consumed.

Literally: By the end of The Neon Demon, one of the four women at its center will have been eaten by the others. Another will have had sex with a cadaver, seemingly gobbling it up, after the model she wants rejects her. Another will … Then again, why spoil it? Refn’s movie is not the intentional farce it seems to be, but rather an allegory. Like Coppola’s movie, its uneasy willingness to enjoy the condemnable pleasures at its center points to some radical ideas about fashion’s role in how we see ourselves. Unlike Coppola, Refn can’t quite communicate those ideas. It’s a movie about fashion’s power by a director who sometimes forgets the source of that power: not only pure, unfettered desire, but the images that can awaken it. The fabrics and models and pictures that, free of philosophizing and exposition, make you want.

Movies, movie stars and fashion are made of some of the same basic stuff. At its best, The Neon Demon remembers this. At its worst, it unthinkingly indulges it.

The plot is simple enough. Think backstage drama. Think Showgirls, with cannibals. Jesse (Elle Fanning), an unaccountably talented 16-year-old from nowheresville, arrives in L.A. with dreams of becoming a model, as the story goes. She is an unexpected success, quickly nabbing work with the best agent, photographer, and fashion house in town and catching the attention of Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee Kershaw), two models who, because they’re in their early 20s, are on the outs. Jesse’s is a natural beauty; theirs is increasingly manufactured.

To its credit, Neon Demon’s premise is that Jesse’s “it” factor, whatever “it” is (arguably, though tiredly, her virginity and what it “represents”) is always apparent. It’s there when she’s in front of the camera; it’s there when she’s not. It’s hers. Everyone arounds her wants to feed off of her allure, but they can’t quite figure out what it is. So they sum it up in a word: beauty. And it’s true: she’s beautiful. But with the wrong actress, this would all be impossible to communicate. You’d have a bunch of people obsessing over something that doesn’t exist. Fanning, on the other hand, is remarkably apt here, full of poise and, most importantly, pull. When she models, such as during a frightening encounter with a Terry Richardsonesque photographer, she has a mysterious sensuality that makes you believe other models would want to kill her.

Alongside other great turns from Kershaw, who began her career as a model, and Jena Malone, who plays a makeup artist, Fanning’s performance exemplifies Refn at his best. A great performance in a Refn movie shouldn’t surprise us. He gave us Tom Hardy’s indomitable breakthrough in Bronson and Kristin Scott Thomas’s impressively jagged turn in Only God Forgives. His most popular American film to date, Drive, which stars Ryan Gosling as a stunt driver who gets tangled up with criminals, is more memorable for its stagey iconography — Ryan Gosling as a neo-noir James Dean, hunched here or posed there — than for anything in particular that happens.

It’s a good sign Refn finally made a movie that’s explicitly about the fashion industry. Images and icons (and yes, violence) are what we remember his movies for because these ingredients suit his techno-gothicism, blood-spattered but beautiful surfaces. His most salient ideas reside in performance and image, not in script or language, where he seems to want them to be. Unsurprisingly, this movie very quickly reaches for unsatisfying intellectual extremes. Worse, it embraces boringly old-fashioned — but graphically stylish — misogyny. The premise easily lends itself to a tired exegesis on beauty and age. It didn’t have to. But here, it does.

Thankfully, in the 21st century, we can help. We can all play editor. There’s an alternative version of this movie lurking beneath what’s here, waiting to be supercut from the current version and posted on YouTube. Look for it. It will likely reduce the movie down to the fashion shoots; to all the images that resemble fashion shoots. These have long been Refn’s best kind of image: overly arranged, impenetrably styled, lit with neon, brimming with sexual subtext. He can paint a pretty picture, but can he let it do its work? The Neon Demon is Refn’s best movie, or at least the one that best matches his style to his subject. But if it succeeds, it does so because of the talent — but despite the intentions — of the guy who made it. That’s fashion?