The lady was all the time going to die.
The very first picture in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, launched 5 years in the past this month (and streaming on Amazon Prime), is of Elle Fanning’s Jesse splayed throughout an ornate couch, in a costume with the identical uninteresting shimmer of a physique bag, blood adorning her elegant neck. Though we don’t realize it but, it’s her first picture shoot since shifting from Georgia to Los Angeles to attempt her hand at a modeling profession, and Refn has already made her destiny plain. She’s a sacrifice, an providing on a glittery altar, and we’ll spend the following two hours studying why.
Or will we? There’s an inclination to view Refn’s movies, significantly within the final decade, as lovely however typically chilly workouts in fashion over substance. From the stoic Driver together with his scorpion jacket in Drive to the haunted characters who stalk Too Old To Die Young, it’s straightforward to see his characters as ciphers, beautiful simulacra strolling doomed neon landscapes.
This is particularly true of The Neon Demon due to how shortly and determinedly it leans into that concept of fashion over substance, and exterior magnificence over inner complexity. At one level the characters themselves have that very debate in a lavish restaurant, and never lengthy after we’ve met her, Jesse herself admits that she has “no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.”
Like practically all of Refn’s movies, The Neon Demon proved divisive, and to its detractors traces like Jesse’s “I can make money off pretty” had been virtually a confession that Refn would somewhat merely shoot lovely individuals doing horrible issues to one another than inform an precise story. Look nearer, although, and The Neon Demon turns into a charming examine not simply within the hole worship of magnificence, however within the personalities who form that worship in all its unholy glory. Though the movie options compelling work from Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, and the nice Jena Malone, all of it begins and ends with Fanning. Revisiting the movie 5 years later, it’s her efficiency that stands out probably the most, not only for its mercurial qualities, however for her putting capacity to convincingly be all the things the opposite characters imagine her to be, and extra.
Jesse arrives in Los Angeles, apparently after dropping each her dad and mom and looking for a path of her personal, as the image of a wide-eyed ingenue, a princess determine in Refn’s darkish fairy story. Her would-be photographer boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) pins this persona to her immediately, as does Ruby (Jena Malone), her first business buddy who assures her the “deer in headlights look” is precisely what is going to assist her get forward. To them, she is the image of starstruck innocence, somebody who maybe doesn’t know what she has but, a minimum of till she meets a modeling agent (Christina Hendricks) who assures her that greatness lies in her future offering she will survive. This change particularly highlights Jesse’s perceived innocence, however when she tells the agent she’s unsure she will persuade anybody that she’s really of authorized age as an alternative of her true age of 16, the agent delivers a telling reply that helps set the course for the remainder of the movie:
“People believe what they are told.”
As Jesse’s meteoric rise within the trend world begins, her fellow fashions see her as one thing past the fresh-faced, probably naive princess that everybody earlier than them appeared to understand. To Gigi (Heathcote), a mannequin obsessive about perfection via cosmetic surgery, the literal honing of her skilled edge, Jesse should have her personal methods of reducing (pun supposed) via the competitors. She should, Gigi assumes, be sleeping with the photographers and designers who’ve been so fast to place her within the highlight, as a result of how else wouldn’t it occur so shortly? For Sarah (Lee), it’s one thing extra mystical. Jesse’s aggressive edge comes not from shameless instincts, however from inside, one thing Sarah tries to actually style when she sees the opposite lady unintentionally minimize herself. She can’t mimic it, can’t alter herself to be it, so the one method is to eat.
Sarah’s method is, finally, the destiny all three of the ladies surrounding Jesse agree on for her, as they assault and actually devour her in an deserted mansion shortly after she rebuffs Ruby’s sexual advances. The prophecy of the movie’s opening shot comes true as Jesse is reworked right into a literal blood sacrifice for the sake of the wonder and energy of others, greasing the wheels of the machine she was simply starting to be part of.
Before her ritualistic demise, although, Jesse goes via a ritual of her personal, and it’s right here that Fanning’s efficiency transmutes from good to nice. Refn presents her first runway present, by which she’s chosen on the final minute to put on the showcase piece and be the closing mannequin, as a surrealistic, singular journey into the unknown. In a wordless sequence, Fanning walks via a black void lit by flickering neon triangles, representing the metamorphosis of her skilled and private life. The triangle motif continues till she appears to be having a silent dialog, even a love affair, with numerous variations of her self, planting kisses on her reflection, maybe saying good day to the lady she’s turning into, maybe bidding farewell to the lady she’s abandoning. It’s a exceptional second by way of Refn’s visualization made extra exceptional however Fanning’s unbelievable capacity to make use of her giant, expressive eyes to convey not simply shifting feelings, however shifting personalities.
Jesse emerges completely different on the opposite facet of this present, one thing mirrored in her wardrobe, however as she explains to Dean when he worries she’s about to succumb to a shallow world: “I don’t want to be them. I want to be me.”
But who’s she? What are we to make of the Jesse who’s emerged from that neon chrysalis with darker eyes and flashier garments? In her ultimate monologue, she tells us, or appears to, by echoing one thing her mom used to name her: “A Dangerous Girl.”
In her ultimate moments, perched on the sting of a diving board looming out over an empty pool, Jesse appears to get it. She is a harmful lady, simply as her mom instructed her, able to inspiring love and jealousy and blind rage in equal measure, typically unexpectedly. Whether she’s responsible for this or if it’s simply the best way she got here into the world, it’s what she is, and as she says it she maybe unwittingly ventures into the realm of prophecy.
The lady was all the time going to die, and in these ultimate scenes, whilst she fights, Fanning is ready to persuade us that maybe, someplace deep down, she too knew all of it alongside.
Perhaps greater than another character in Nicolas Winding Refn’s brutal, luxuriant movies, Jesse is most primed to be a clean canvas upon which audiences can venture no matter which means they like, whether or not they’d desire her to be the harmless princess caught in a haunted fort or the apex predator solely taking part in at innocence, searching and punishing even past her personal demise. The efficiency may have coasted solely on Fanning’s appears to be like, the all the time on-point wardrobe, and the precision of Refn’s visible language. Instead, Elle Fanning did one thing chic. She was capable of play a personality who’s many issues to many various individuals, even perhaps to herself, and persuade us that she is all of these issues, typically with little greater than a glance however all the time with whole, weak believability. She’s a doomed princess. She’s a canny showwoman. She’s magnificence incarnate.
She’s a harmful lady.
Matthew Jackson is a popular culture author and nerd-for-hire whose work has appeared at Syfy Wire, Mental Floss, Looper, Playboy, and Uproxx, amongst others. He lives in Austin, Texas, and he’s all the time counting the times till Christmas. Find him on Twitter: @awalrusdarkly.