Review: “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” one character illustrates in the midst of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon to justify the core theme of this neo-surreal piece. Believe me, that quote alone has multi-interpretation; and at some points, it’s an honest confession and excuse to sustain the whole film.
The Neon Demon is a beauty; and beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing… the only things the film attempts to convey with faux aesthetic and complexity. Or was it all deliberate? To ensure that the film is a metaphor in its entirety.
While NWR is fond of silent moments and nearly taciturn protagonist, The Neon Demon is a bit deviant; it relies on dialogues (although little) as much as on the neon-bathed, one-perfect-shot-ready visual traits. Delivered like poetry, even those dialogues might be as ambiguous and as revealing as the obscure imagery which cramped the whole narrative.
“I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty,” says Jesse (not universally, but intriguingly beautiful Elle Fanning) explaining her motivation to move from a countryside to Los Angeles. The 16-y.o. girl aspires to be a model though she’s too young to be in the industry. Yet, she’s right at one thing: she’s drop dead gorgeous… and her gorgeousness comes from a “thing” which unknowing to her is being targeted by many other aspiring young girls like her.
Basically, that’s the plot of The Neon Demon, yet, NWR is aware that “the industry” isn’t as small as that. Therefore, the Danish director summons all other characters to partake in this pageantry; ensuring that audiences grasp the idea that modelling industry is not a safe bet. NWR tries to convey that what Jesse’s been dabbling into is a cannibalistic industry; it’s a homo-homini-lupus environment, and some unwritten rules exist underneath.
Watching The Neon Demon is like watching a grotesque fashion exhibition. It’s stunning in look and, same as many fashion designers claim to their works, artistically meaningful; but, at the same point, it’s a boring, less-developed, stagnant show. It’s difficult to understand why NWR tries too hard to put so many elements in surface, which doesn’t sustain the belief that “beauty is the only thing.” Giallo photography, trippy images and symbolism, necrophilia, pedophilia, and even, occultism are scattered together to adorn the thin, lack-of-character-development narrative without immediate impact on and/or beyond storytelling.
The final facade of the film is immaculately beautiful, but that’s it; that’s the only thing (now see how the opening quote is relevant to the whole film?). In terms of NWR’s portfolio, The Neon Demon is almost as aesthetically meaningful as Bronson and meaningfully aesthetic as Only God Forgives; but it isn’t. It sticks to the belief that “beauty is the only thing.” Or the whole film is a metaphor to that belief?