Film review: The Neon Demon – A masterpiece of abject terror and venomous beauty

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has described his stylish new picture, The Neon Demon, as a “horror film about vicious beauty”. It’s interesting that an exploration of the fashion industry is done through psychological horror, but it’s not wholly surprising.

There is, after all, something grotesque about the industry itself and its practices. Women are viewed as slabs of meat, reaching their expiry date at the old age of 21. Why have “sour milk when you can have fresh meat?”

On the surface, it tells the dangerous story of the young and beautiful Jesse (Elle Fanning) who moves to Los Angeles to begin life as a model. As casting director Jan (Christina Hendricks) tells her, she’s a cut above the usual talent that comes on by and has a real chance at success.

Tonally, it begins life as a simple tale of a girl who moves to the big city and encounters the ‘big bad wolves’. As the film begins to bear its teeth and the violent reality of Jesse’s new world begins to sink in, the film shifts into an assault on your senses. To explain the plot in any more detail would only detract from the stomach-churning scenes that lie in wait.

Refn’s film has quite infamously and unsurprisingly split Cannes, being met with loud cheers and equally loud boos.

It has been understandably lambasted by some as being as shallow and hollow as the characters it focuses on, and if it has anything to say (and it does), it’s that what is beautiful and what is terrifying are not mutually exclusive.

There is something horrifying and sinister about the world stunning catwalk models inhabit, just as there is something captivating about the powerful movements of a wildcat prowling around a ransacked motel room. A volatile mix.

None of this quite compares to, and nothing will prepare you, for the moments where beauty is but a concept – a mere idea – long forgotten and unwelcome. We are subjected to a sickening sequence of lesbian necrophilia that is, most disturbingly, not out of place in Refn’s vicious vision of the industry.

Not everything lands as well as it should, however. A certain scene involving an eye unintentionally evokes a moment from charming horror-comedy, Evil Dead 2, and detracts somewhat from the otherwise intense scene.

Cinematographer Natasha Braier has managed to create a very interesting piece of visual work, one that not even the subject matter can pry your eyes away from. The runway show and Jesse’s visit to the party – “the fun kind” – feature some of the most spellbindingly hypnotic and frankly gorgeous sequences in cinema as a whole, underpinned by an electrifying score from Drive collaborator, Cliff Martinez.

The Neon Demon is bold and distinctive. Elements may feel familiar to those that saw Refn’s two previous efforts, but you will be quickly removed from your comfort zone and left drenched in a cold sweat.

You will either sit in the audience, transfixed, or walk down the steps towards the exit in disgust. Both are correct responses.