Anticipation is an easy thing to have at a film festival, and it’s safe to say that the mood of what-is-he-going-to-do-now? that preceded the Cannes premiere showing of “The Neon Demon,” the new film from Nicolas Winding Refn, was at a particularly high tingle, and for good reason. Refn can be a filmmaker of extravagant humanity, as he proved in “Drive,” and also of extravagant inhumanity, as he proved in “Only God Forgives,” the voluptuous and ludicrous fantasia of revenge that was roundly despised when it played at Cannes in 2013. Nutty as it was, however, “Only God Forgives” did have a few indelible moments (like Ryan Gosling dolefully submitting to getting his hands chopped off), and it suggested that Refn might just possess the operatic fearlessness to create a spellbinding horror film.
A horror film is what “The Neon Demon” is (sort of). It’s set in the Los Angeles fashion world, and it’s the kind of movie in which models look like mannequins that look like slasher-film corpses, and corpses look like love objects. Beauty mingles with mangled flesh, and each fastidiously slick image seems to have come out of “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” or “The Shining” or a very sick version of a Calvin Klein commercial. Every scene, every shot, every line of dialogue, every pause is so hypnotically composed, so luxuriously overdeliberate, that the audience can’t help but assume that Refn knows exactly what he’s doing — that he’s setting us up for the kill.
He is, but not if you’re on the lookout for a movie that makes sense. (Oh, that.) “The Neon Demon” is a tease. It starts off as a relatively scannable, user-friendly thriller, but it turns out to be a movie made by a macabre surrealist gross-out prankster. Jesse (Elle Fanning), a peach-skinned ingenue with the ringlets of a blonde angel, shows up in Los Angeles just after her 16th birthday to launch a modeling career. The jaded pinups she has to compete with are silky-voiced cutthroat vipers who look like those android ice princesses out of the ’80s Robert Palmer videos, and they act even nastier than they look. The reason they hate Jesse is that she’s an “It” girl, with that special indefinable quality that the whole world wants. It’s called innocence, or erotic authenticity, or something that can’t be achieved by a mere combination of Olympian genetics, plastic surgery, and breast implants.
Jesse, as the head of her modeling agency (Christina Hendricks) informs her, has the makings of a star. But all her corn-fed splendor seems to attract is portents of violence. Refn, if nothing else, is quite good at portents. In fact, he’s better at portents than he is at following through on what they portend. For an hour, “The Neon Demon” is all ice-cool mesmeric encounters that seem to hang in the air, with a hint of kinky violence always lurking around the corner.
Jesse has rented a room in a seedy two-story motel in Pasadena, and one night she unlocks the door and there’s some sort of invader in there. (As it turns out, it seems to have escaped from the zoo.) Even worse is the motel manager, a real abusive dog played, in a highly convincing change of pace, by Keanu Reeves. At the modeling studio, Jesse lands a shoot with one of the agency’s power-list photographers, who asks her to strip, then slathers her in gold paint — none of which would be quite so disturbing if he didn’t give off the vibe of a serial killer tressing his victim. Then there are the other models. Gigi, the blonde shark, is played by Bella Heathcoate, who suggests a more robotically perfected Heather Graham, and Sarah, the Eurotrash pouter, is played by Abbey Lee, who seems to elevate boredom into something homicidal.
Refn treats these characters not as people but as pop objects, and what he builds around them isn’t a suspense film so much as an anything-goes dream play. He sucks up influences like an aesthetic vacuum cleaner — not just Lynch and Kubrick (his two most obvious wanna-be gods) but Dario Argento, the David Cronenberg of “Crash,” and even Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.” There’s a sequence set at a nightclub that features a neon triangle composed of three smaller triangles, and a duplicated image of three Jesses (one of whom kisses herself), and it may inspire two thoughts at once: “Wow, that’s pretty cool!” and “WTF is going on?”
In case you have any doubt as to whether “The Neon Demon” is a film by the maker of “Drive” or by the maker of “Only God Forgives,” let’s be clear: It’s a film by the maker of “Only God Forgives.” It will probably do better at the box office, however, since horror films, in the megaplex era of torture-porn-meets-J-horror-meets-the-kitchen-sink, don’t really have to make sense to succeed. But if “The Neon Demon” gripped our imaginations with greater force, it might have been a phenomenon instead of just a Grand Guignol curio.
After a while, Jesse’s babe-in-the-woods personality begins to shift a bit. She develops a sense of her power in the fashion world, flexing her steel-tipped stilettos, and she starts to come off like an Eve Harrington whose innocence was only an act. But Refn is so devoted to staying one step ahead of his audience, pulling out the rug — and floor — from under us, that he can’t stick to anything. There’s a very good scene — in its diseased way, the most effective one in the film — in which Reeves’ motel manager takes out a knife and does something exquisitely awful with it. If Refn had just rolled with that kind of horror, he might have made an excruciatingly effective thriller. But he seems to regard consistency of tone as a sellout. He stages a rather rough lesbian seduction scene, which comes out of nowhere but winds up sealing Jesse’s fate. There’s also a grand finale that conjures what is meant to be a catharsis of disgust: It involves that favorite thriller emotion, guilt, as well as models strapped into what look like broken-limb body braces, plus — yes — a tell-tale eyeball. Ah, the horror! Not the horror conjured by the movie, but the slipshod horror of Nicolas Winding Refn’s what-is-he-going-to-do-now? storytelling.