When I arrived for a recent Toronto press screening of The Neon Demon, I was politely escorted through the lobby by two very thin young women who were wearing minuscule dresses and towering heels that put them well over six feet. One of them asked how I was doing. "Feeling short," I replied.
They laughed cheerfully; they were clearly much nicer people than any of the vampiric models in the film I was about to see: Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon is a horror movie starring Elle Fanning as a teenage beauty preyed upon by the Los Angeles fashion industry.
So, these young women seemed pleasantly real and obviously directors don't organize the marketing stunts for their films, but still, the two models' appearance did hint at a dangerous lack of political consciousness surrounding this project, a kind of charmless naiveté about how difficult it might be to effectively criticize the fashion industry if you are also planning to trade on its glamour.
Refn, a Dane trained in the United States, has made his reputation with genre-inspired art films of which the most successful is 2011's Drive, a contemporary revival of film noir so credible it registers a shock every time a character picks up a cellphone. Still, that film also features a good old-fashioned damsel in distress: Carey Mulligan plays an ex-con's sweet young wife, the innocent figure for whom Ryan Gosling's taciturn stunt driver becomes willing to risk his life.
Meanwhile, Only God Forgives, Refn's next film, is an awkward mix of Asian crime flick and expressionist art-house fare that proved a much less convincing reinvention of genre. And the only woman in that who isn't a sex-trade worker is portrayed by Kristin Scott Thomas hamming it up in the role of a viciously foul-mouthed drug dealer and domineering mother to the protagonist, played by Gosling again.
Yes, The Neon Demon does pass the Bechdel test with flying colours: the women in this film spend far more time discussing their plastic surgery and each other's looks than discussing men. But on reflection Refn, a director who seems too ready to divide his female characters into whores and madonnas, is perhaps not the best man to trust when it comes time either to reinvent the notoriously sexist horror genre or to make a female-centric drama.
This time, the madonna is Jesse, a small-town 16-year-old who is living in a sleazy Pasadena motel while trying to break into the fashion biz. She is befriended by the apparently sympathetic makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who tells her the industry will love her deer-caught-in-the-headlights look, and introduces her to two gorgeous fellow models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote). As these rivals watch with unconcealed envy, Jesse's star begins to rise.
In early scenes, the trio of mean girls exudes malevolence in a way that is both truly menacing and darkly amusing as Refn positions Jesse in a game of danger and glamour evoked with consciously arty bits of semi-abstraction that are claustrophobic and effective.
But Refn often overplays his hand. Drive's Christina Hendricks puts in a strong cameo (and sadly never reappears) as an unsmiling agency director who praises the wraith-like Jesse for looking fit but says others might say she is fat. The satire of the industry is well-deserved but it is also completely unsubtle – and yet repeatedly undercut by Refn's own obsession with style. When Jesse encounters a mountain lion – we get it, she's prey – Refn proves himself, as he did in Only God Forgives, to be a director far too enamoured of his own imagery. From there, and this is early in the action, things go downhill rapidly as the movie descends into horror material that is laughably grotesque yet so visually cool it remains fatally unfunny.
Refn has little interest in naturalism, so I tried hard to quiet my inner literalist as Jesse mistakes Ruth's odd advances for friendship or is left entirely alone on a shoot with a creepy male photographer, but if the character's plight is going to interest an audience she demands a certain respect and Refn seems unwilling to give it to her. There are insufficiently developed hints here that Jesse is becoming tainted by the same nasty poison that courses through her rivals' veins, leaving an increasingly uninteresting Fanning without enough alternative material as her wide-eyed act wears thin. And when Jesse hears a runaway teenager in the next motel room getting attacked and fails to call 911, the horror plot begins to outstrip any notion of the character's integrity as a narrative construction – let alone as a person.
Similarly, and more offensively considering how seldom lesbianism is represented positively in the movies, Ruby is exposed not only as gay but also as a creature of depravity so deep she makes Basic Instinct look a bit tame. Malone, who has successfully held her character back from the overwrought tone that occasionally mars Lee's and Heathcote's performances, handles highly demanding scenes of sex and death with aplomb, but there remains a nasty whiff here of a movie that is trotting out lesbian love interests and clawing cat fights for male titillation. With fashion taking the place of ballet, The Neon Demon may well prove controversial in a Black Swan kind of way, offering a love-it-or-hate-it debate over the appeal of its melodrama versus the politics of its social critique.
In the women's washroom after the screening, another critic turned to me and announced, "Well, you know a woman didn't make that film!" That got me thinking, what would The Neon Demon have looked like if it had been directed by a woman? The ending would certainly have been different – some likeable woman, a type who simply doesn't appear in Refn's version, would have triumphed over something bad – but mainly the film would have been more campy, more violent yet also funnier, with blood pouring forth not only from its female characters but also from the men. I might not have liked it any better, but at least I might have laughed.