Jesse (Elle Fanning), a (barely) sixteen-year-old virgin of surpassing loveliness, wafts into Los Angeles to become a model – though, in writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s dissociated, pared-down vision of the situation (and the city) she seems utterly innocent in the sense of showing little interest in the business of modelling or the fashion industry it’s a part of. All she has is a sense of her own loveliness, in which she is as secure as Mads Mikkelson is of his warrior skills in Valhalla Rising and Ryan Gosling his behind-the-wheel aptitude in Drive. Like those Refn protagonists, she’s as much a prisoner of her exceptional quality as its master – and the thrust of the story is that her purity, in the sense of not having to work to look as she does, spurs smitten or jealous women to become vampire harpies and take her down, perhaps literally to cannibalise her.
There are even more homages here than in a Hélène Cattet/Bruno.Forzani giallo repurposing, with a collage of nods to Bava (Blood and Black Lace), Argento (Suspiria), DePalma (Body Double), Lynch (Mulholland Dr), All About Eve (or, more likely, Showgirls) and even Paul Schrader (a lion in a motel room evokes a key bit from his Cat People remake). To attract an agent (Christina Hendricks in a one-scene bit), Jesse has entranced photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) take portfolio shots of her immaculately dressed lying on a couch with her throat cut – in the alternate universe of the movie, this is how to get noticed in the glamour bizz. Make-up tech Ruby (Jena Malone) spots her in a dressing room – eerily, they converse back to back while looking at each other in mirrors – and is eager to help her wipe off the stage blood, but also toothily predatory when it comes to luring her away from an unsafe motel — where that lion and a seething night manager (Keanu Reeves) who namechecks Lolita – to a palatial mansion where she is housesitting. Jesse puts off both Dean and Ruby, who have helped her, but Ruby is more pressing. Ruby divides her time between making up models for fashion shows and corpses for open-casket funerals, and when rejected by Jesse diverts her attentions to a corpse who can’t fend her off in an explicit, yet oddly reverential necrophilia scene.
Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who have resorted to surgery and perhaps witchcraft to attain (or retain) a look Jesse has without effort linger at the fringes of the story like Greek myth figures (or Australian cyborgs), and eventually close in for a terrifying, yet discreet attack – which may also be a wish-fulfilment for a girl who has been courting her own death by staging it several times, wandering in range of predators and even standing on a diving board above an empty swimming pool (everyone takes it as read that in this business you’re dead at 21 anyway). It’s ambiguous as to how much of Jesse is consumed since the gory details are kept out of frame, but after her exit from the film there are telling moments with Ruby using a garden hose to clear away mess (she specialises in getting rid of blood like some sort of inside-out vampire) or writhing in a shallow grave … and, in a comical gross-out conflating bulimia with the aesthetic of HG Lewis, a shoot featuring carapace-like breastplates is disrupted when a model has to rush into the bathroom to sick up an eyeball.
The Neon Demon – a distant fused echo of Terence Davies’ The Neon Bible and 80s trash Neon Maniacs – is always poised, evenly-paced, full of symbols whih are more decorative than meaningful (Jesse thinks the full moon looks like an eye, the title seems to refer to a constellation-like configuration of triangles), scripted with theatrically curt dialogue (‘I don’t want to be like them – they want to be me’), intensely acted by a solid cast who work hard at being neutral or covertly unspeakable (even Jesse is ruthless and arrogant) and has a hypnotic ubercool soundtrack. It’s set in an emptied world – one photo-shoot takes place in an enormous, featureless white room (which becomes a closed set, rid even of the support staff a shoot needs) and everyone lives or works alone in spaces far too big for them. Like Kiss Me Deadly, Barton Fink, Sorority Girl, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and many other Los Angeles horror tales, it ends on the beach – as far as a drifter can go.