In Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, beauty is an infectious disease everyone wants to fall ill from. Here, the stylish director weaponizes his personal affinity for aesthetics. Wrapping society’s obsession with physical appearance around sumptuous imagery, like so many rusty nails on a spiked bat, he bludgeons the audience with blunt satirical horror, no less effective for its lack of subtlety.

Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, an underage model whose pure look and mysterious innocence beguile anyone she comes into contact with. From the moment she appears on screen, covered in fake blood for a photoshoot, she seems like a tragic Disney princess—one who got lost in the woods and woke up in a severe art film surrounded by carnivorous spirits hungry to exploit her. She’s a wounded manifestation of the Chosen One trope, only instead of having superpowers or a high midi-chlorian count, she’s cursed with this aural je ne sais quois that makes her every interaction a minefield.

For much of The Neon Demon’s running time, Jesse is portrayed sympathetically, a fragile victim in the making unprepared for the Dionysian dangers of Los Angeles. Her early scenes with Ruby (Jena Malone), a friendly makeup artist, and rival models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) play out like outtakes from Heathers but with duller barbs and sharper optics. She sells the cute hayseed in over her head very well. This is really evident in one scene early on, where Jesse is left alone on a closed session with a famous photographer. Up to this point, we’ve been conditioned to look at her as vulnerable to a fault and Refn plays into that presumption for suspense, framing their moments alone together like a predator stalking prey.

Ultimately, though, no harm befalls her; the ensuing images provide proof that Jesse is fully aware of her effect on others, dually wielding it alongside her coquettish wiles to get to where she wants. Jesse works the same effortless magic on a famous designer (played by Alessandro Nivola as a brilliant Tom Ford pastiche), earning the opportunity to close out one of his fashion shows. In perhaps the most visually striking moment in the film, Jesse is metaphysically transported to a higher realm of being during the climactic catwalk. Refn channels Jonathan Glazer in this haunting, spacey interlude, hinting at something primordial in man’s lust for perfection. In this diversion, Jesse seems to wholly embrace what she represents to those around her. When Sarah asks her what it’s like, “when it’s winter and you’re the sun,” Jesse says “it’s everything.”

That’s The Neon Demon, really. Refn has often been accused of style over substance, but here style is the substance. As Nivola’s Ford stand-in tells Dean (Karl Glusman as Jesse’s would-be suitor), “beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” By crafting a package as slickly consumable as this one, Refn forces the viewer to tackle their own toxic relationship with aesthetics head on. Every ooh and ahh elicited from one of cinematographer Natasha Braier’s meticulously gorgeous frames is immediately entwined with an equal groan or grumble at the complicity the viewer feels for this destructive cycle of coveting that which we deem visually superior. With repetitive images of porcelain skin obscured by consuming shadows, sparked by the plinking light stabs of Cliff Martinez’s pervasive synth score, Refn has fashioned a shining jewel of a film, wet with the blood such a precious stone took to harvest.

If this film has a failing, it’s in how slight it feels. There’s nothing revelatory in the depiction of the subject matter. Aronofsky executed a similar ode to perfection with Black Swan and that was a film with more textural complexity and stronger performances. There’s a failure to truly engage with the patriarchal underpinning of the plight at the heart of the film. One of the better elements of the film is how it absolutely takes for granted that the men all seem to be threats, whether that danger is dormant or immediate. (Keanu Reeves’ guest turn as a rapist motel operator is a great example of this.) But both the looming threat from the men in the picture and the eventual ritualistic betrayal of the women in Jesse’s life are driven by something rotten at the core of our society.

There’s something pernicious in a world that places such a high premium on how a woman looks, but little of that feels explored. It’s all a surface reading at best, but that’s to be expected from a film so concerned with getting skin deep.

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