Comparisons have already been made to Darren Aronofsky’s burnout ballet Black Swan – here’s why Nicholas Winding Refn’s supermodel cannibal horror is going to make a similar mark
I just returned from Los Angeles, where director Nicolas Winding Refn’s fifth film The Neon Demon recently wrapped. There I had a true-to-life LA experience. Dinner at the Chateau Marmont included frustrating celebrity sightings (Frank Ocean enjoying himself at the next table when he has a hit record to hatch) and overheard conversations that, I kid you not, included lines like, “My boyfriend is coming in two days and I’m so hungry.” Her friend on the receiving end solemnly nodded, empathising with her self-induced pain and offered solidarity, “But you can’t eat! Here, I’ll not eat with you.”
These vain asides, all too common in Hollywood, make up the bulk of the Drive director’s latest. It’s all about surface, with a sinister twist. After teasing fans with a series of tantalising stills, the trailer was released and it looks set to be Refn’s return to form after the non-essential viewing that was Only God Forgives. The trailer has more wig-snatching visuals than a Lady Gaga music video: flying glitter, smashing mirrors, a midnight visit from a cougar and blood pouring out of hungry model mouths.
The Neon Demon stars a waifish Elle Fanning as Jesse, an upcoming model courted by the industry, with hangers-on desperate for a piece of her youth and vitality. Fellow model Sarah (played by real life ex-model Abbey Lee) asks Jesse, “What’s it feel like to walk into the middle of a room, it’s like winter, and you’re the sun?”
“It’s everything,” Jesse deadpans.
Comparisons have already been made to Darren Aronofsky’s ballet burnout Black Swan, also rife with ruthless primadonna competition, and here’s why that correlation is not a bad thing. In the model-eat-model (literally, in this case) world of high fashion, these girls will go to vicious lengths to dethrone whoever gets thrown a compliment (“nice bone structure”). There have been scaremongering behind-the-scenes entries before – as well as Black Swan, Valley of the Dolls and Perfect Blue both come to mind – that have dealt hard blows to the glossy surface of the ballet, acting and pop industries. Yet, the discomfiting documentary Girl Model, which zooms in on the barely legal beauties farmed out for model work without supervision, is the only one to unzip the trousers to expose fashion’s less-than-savoury backside.
“The Neon Demon may be a cannibalistic dramatisation that borders on hysteria. But hey, have you been backstage at a fashion show? How fascinating would it be to shovel the modelling world’s steaming shit and deplorable practices on to the silver screen?”
The idea for The Neon Demon came from Refn’s own experience working as a commercial director. “He (might have been) working with an actor who is one of the most beautiful women in the world, and the client says, ‘She’s too fat. She’s not pretty enough,’” actress Jena Malone told us of how the seed for the plot was planted. “And also, he has two daughters, so a lot of it comes from him being like, ‘This is fucked up.’ Because he already sees it in his daughters at seven years old, being like, ‘Am I pretty? Am I fat?’ That’s where the idea for this story came from.”
“I could feel elements of this film’s themes when I was ten years old looking at magazines,” adds Malone, who plays a mothering make-up artist to Jesse in the film. “And I’m sure young boys probably felt very similar things when they’re looking through magazines: ‘Oh, this is beauty? This is what I should want? This is desire?’”
According to a survey by The Model Alliance, a group of people who aim to “give a voice to the faces of the fashion industry”, most models enter the fashion world before the age of 16. Of those surveyed, 64 per cent admitted that they were asked to lose weight by their modelling agency. So, sure, The Neon Demon may be a cannibalistic dramatisation that borders on hysteria. But hey, have you been backstage at a fashion show? How fascinating would it be to shovel the modelling world’s steaming shit and deplorable practices on to the silver screen? In Refn’s hands, it could be a colour-drenched dive into fashion’s fucked-up psyche. At worst, it’s a K-Stew-free fragrance commercial, with blood. His supermodel cannibal horror is a guaranteed win.