It’s an old tale from Greek mythology – when the handsome Narcissus saw himself reflected in the pool, he fell in love with his own image. In the twenty-first century, narcissism permeates our daily lives – in magazines, in selfies, in clothing. Somehow, vanity became a virtue – a concept that Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon brutally deconstructs.
Young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) is initially fresh-faced and eager, but is soon confronted with the bitter, sardonic personas of her new peers. It becomes increasingly obvious that the fashion world is one that fetishises youth, but Jesse quickly learns how to take advantage of her beauty. Indeed, her appearance is really all that she has – she is not particularly intelligent or skilled in any other way. In the world of The Neon Demon, beauty is truly all that matters, it is “the highest currency”. And from the establishing shot, beauty is interwoven with death – after all, what is dead can still be perfect to the eye, and the living counterpart is sometimes just as hollow. Men play a secondary role in the fashion industry – they are gatekeepers, photographers, but never the stars, and disappear entirely from the film’s second act. Women are allowed to triumph – but only if they fight tooth-and-claw in what is, transparently, a dog-eat-dog microcosm.
This is a surprisingly low-budget film, given the amazing visuals. Colour is used wisely; predominantly blue, like the pool of Narcissus, and red – the colour of menstrual blood and lipstick. And the entire film is held together by an exciting electro-synth score, designed by Cliff Martinez. Despite the heavy subject matter, there is also an amazingly dark sense of humour present, even if it is occasionally a little heavy-handed and overstated. We are never told exactly what the titular Neon Demon is, but we can ascertain that it has something to do with the cutthroat fashion industry, the lure of pride and the not-so-innocuous heroine herself. In the end, the real threat is posed by the other women, creatures of malice who would do anything to have Jesse’s enigmatic “thing” – the unattainable quality of innocence.