Review: The Neon Demon (2016)

Women and violence in a fashionable light.

by Lisa Nieri

The Neon Demon (2016) opened in theatres a few months back this year. However late, it’s definitely worth your list of “Movies You Should Have Already Seen”. The film is the very personal point view of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, one of the main cinematic auteurs who keep giving something to talk about. He’s the kind of director who can make even the most violent scenes look beautiful.

He’s been doing this since the very beginning, debuting with short movie Punisher (turned into a three-movie saga), then straight through Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), which made him step into the Hollywood mega budget scene. Refn didn’t give up his own point of view, instead gifting the movie world with a new kind of aesthetic.

So here we are, with his last three movies, celebrating the worst part of human kind, in a light no one dared to use before. The Neon Demon starts here, after many complex movies which related human and physical violence with the main character fighting himself, by himself.

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Women are not like that. Women can be mean on a very different level. And Refn can do that, can tell us the story of women and their particular kind violence.

So we met Jesse (Elle Fanning), a beautiful 16 years old girl (pretending to be 19) arriving to L.A. to became a model. She is beautiful in a singular way; nobody can’t help but stare at her. Our heroine is taking her very first steps in the fashion world, where everything is bright and everyone is judging her for how she looks, and nothing else. She also has something more than other models. She’s not only young and beautiful (as every other girl in L.A. appears to be) but vital and can shine in her own right, without the need of a bitchy attitude or the help of a plastic surgeon. She’s naïve – and letting the goldfish swim with the sharks is not a good idea.

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Let’s get past Refn’s “almost fairy tale” and into the brutality of a world made entirely of appearances. The director chose to set his last movie in the realm of fashion, which is a scary enough world for men but more so for women. Every girl is affected by her own paranoia about beauty, after all.

What is the difference here? Models around Jesse don’t just want to be like her, they want to let her light down and basque in it. In a way, they would like to suck the beauty out of her, like vampires desiring what can never be theirs. Eventually Jesse discovers what kind of effect she can have on other people, first through fear, then curiosity, before finally understanding how to manage this one-of-a-kind superpower.

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And so Jesse slowly changes her point of view, going from small city girl to big-time L.A. model. You can’t hate her for this transformation: much like everyone else, you end up perceiving her beauty the way others do and end up falling in love with her.

The Neon Demon is a great movie, the charming kind, and this is all to the credit of Nicolas Winding Refn, who can accomplish whatever effect he wants through camera and lighting. The surprise element here is young Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota) who steps out of her shadow and stands under the sun with other older accomplished actresses just fine. Fanning does a good job with Jesse, as her character goes on a journey to fully understand the world that surrounds her and learn that being beautiful can be both a blessing and a curse.


LisaLisa Nieri / Writer (Lucca, Italy – 1990) Copywriter for Telefilm Central, Lisa studied  communication at Università di Firenze. She’s covered local film festivals such as the Venice Biennale and is a massive movie lover and a series addict, always ready to engage in a new adventure with  interesting characters. #TeamPijama

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