Even if you were to somehow miss the elegant "NWR" monogram in the opening credits, you would be safe in assuming that Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film is a self-indulgent exercise in style. But what self-indulgence, and what style! A surreal urban fairy tale, "The Neon Demon" unfolds in a murderously debauched corner of the Los Angeles fashion industry, one prowled by predatory beasts, silky-smooth operators and gorgeous blonde vampires on stiletto heels. Languorously paced and literally dressed to kill, the movie is a corrosive attack on beauty — or at least our soulless, corporatized definition of the term — but it is also, above all else, a hypnotically beautiful object.
If that sounds like a paradox, it's closer to perfection: a Helmut Newton fever dream crossed with a Dario Argento splatter flick. To dismiss this movie as style over substance is to miss the point by the length of a swimming pool. From its blinding-white photo shoots and golden glitter explosions to its ravishing costumes (gleamingly photographed by the cinematographer Natasha Braier), "The Neon Demon" doesn't just appropriate the visual language of high-end glamour; it incarnates it, with a level of ornamentation so fetishistic it goes well beyond surface mimicry or satire. The movie's attitude toward its subject is essentially that of a body snatcher, assuming its victim's outer form in order to destroy it from within.
To say more would be getting ahead of the plot, which centers around Jesse (a superb Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old naif who turns up in L.A. with dreams of a modeling career and immediately draws every gaze. The compliments she gets are so backhanded they're backstabbing: As a friendly makeup artist (Jena Malone) tells her, "That whole deer-in-the-headlights thing is exactly what they want."
Still, there's no denying Jesse's exquisiteness. She doesn't have the icy, chiseled perfection of her rivals, but Fanning, with her creamy complexion and girl-next-door smile, turns her into a vision of corn-fed innocence. Unblemished by Botox or cosmetic surgery ("Plastics is just good grooming," another model snarls), she has the sort of radiant purity that the biz recognizes as not just rare but sui generis. Before long she's being slathered with gold body paint and earning gasps from a top fashion impresario (Alessandro Nivola, hilarious). Meanwhile, the sneering condescension of her two main rivals, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), turns to rage and barely concealed panic as they're eclipsed by the It Girl in their midst.
Jesse may be on the fast track to success, but "The Neon Demon" moves like sweet, shimmering molasses; nearly every scene proceeds at a seductive crawl, as if Refn were meticulously draining every last molecule of oxygen from the room. It's an approach that could have seemed stultifying, but instead it serves to amplify the film's otherworldly eeriness and ghoulish comedy, even as a creeping undercurrent of dread builds and builds in the background.
Having made his reputation with the frenzied, violent spectacles he unleashed in films like "Bronson" and the "Pusher" trilogy, Refn has since become a master of slow-drip tension and an ever more exacting stylist — an approach that could cut both ways, as his two previous pictures demonstrated. The meticulous sense of cool he displayed in "Drive" (2011) seemed to have curdled into self-parody by the time he made "Only God Forgives" (2013), a career nadir that suggested Refn had little more to offer than slick surfaces, Ryan Gosling and some highly creative methods of impalement.
"The Neon Demon" — which, like "Only God Forgives," premiered to impassioned boos and defiant applause at the Cannes Film Festival — offers promising evidence to the contrary. Directing Blake Lively in a 2012 Gucci perfume commercial was a good warm-up, no doubt, but Refn has found a subject that not only withstands but accommodates the bloody excesses and longueurs of his trash-art sensibility. Which is not to imply that he is alone in seeing the grotesquely funny underside of an industry that turns pretty girls into meat ("Death Becomes Her" and "Drop Dead Gorgeous" come to mind, as does the entire casting-couch history of Hollywood).
Nor is Refn the first auteur to explore that psychic space where a woman's identity — beset by a combo of ruthless self-determination and behind-the-scenes monstrousness — begins to destabilize and rupture. David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr." and Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" are the most notable recent antecedents here, and "The Neon Demon," while blunter in its use of dream logic and cruder in its effects, steals more than a few glances in their direction. And as in those films, the energy and exhilaration of young stardom finds its antithesis in the terror and isolation of home life. Every night Jesse returns to a seedy-as-hell Pasadena motel run by a sinister manager played by Keanu Reeves; his first appearance gets a chuckle, but the last time you see him, the laughter will have died in your throat.
The film doesn't make it easy to distinguish between stylized reality and waking nightmare, which is very much the point. Some of the key moments of Jesse's rise, including a major fashion show, blur into abstraction — subsumed in a tide of trippy, red-tinted imagery and the pulsing, surging electronica of Cliff Martinez's score. The film's most enigmatic image — a symbol consisting of three triangles on an otherwise black screen — may remind you of another shot of Jesse admiring herself in a three-way mirror, which in turn may take you all the way back to "All About Eve."
To be sure, Refn isn't exactly Joseph Mankiewicz, and he was smart to enlist Mary Laws and the English playwright Polly Stenham ("That Face") to help him write the script. Whatever their precise delineation of duties, it's no accident that the male characters in the movie are mostly duds and doofuses (Karl Glusman plays a young photographer who follows Jesse around like a puppy), while it's the wickedly sharp interplay of Jesse and her evil stepsisters — played with delectable poise by the Australian actresses Heathcote and Lee — that lingers in the memory.
It remains to be seen if this fends off the charges of misogyny that have occasionally (and not always unjustly) been lobbed at Refn's movies. The director may have told the Guardian in an interview that women are not only more interesting but "a more advanced race" than men, but his transgressively over-the-top finale, with its scenes of cannibalism, menstrual horror and lesbian necrophilia, will surely lend ammunition to those who want it. As someone gripped by the lurid force of Refn's vision, I saw them as encouraging, legitimately thrilling signs of life. "The Neon Demon" may be a beautiful corpse of a movie, but it's a corpse that bleeds.
'The Neon Demon'
MPAA rating: R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality and language
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes