"Beauty is the highest currency." So proclaims a fashion designer with authority in Nicolas Winding Refn's brutal, beautiful masterpiece, The Neon Demon, a horror-film satire about consumer culture set in L.A.'s fashion scene.
Simply named the Fashion Designer, Alessandro Nivola's character holds court at a trendy restaurant to a table of adoring, nubile models, each more stunning than the next.
But he's really addressing just one girl (you can hardly call these exquisite stunted children women), a 16-year-old newbie named Jesse who sits apart from the crowd, luxuriating in the designer's velveteen attention.
Portrayed by a mesmerizing Elle Fanning (Maleficent, Trumbo) in a magnificent, heart-stopping star turn, Jesse has become an overnight success after her first runway show.
At turns seductive and repulsive about its world of dangerous sex and violence, The Neon Demon combines horror movie tropes with arresting images and clever references to a body of genre entries, including Hammer Films' Dracula pictures, Cat People, and The Hunger.
At its center unspools a simple, if highly ambiguous, narrative thread. The first half follows Jesse's transformation from a fresh, healthy all-American virgin into a narcissistic mannequin for haute couture snobs.
We follow Jesse as she goes through the rituals of the fashion world: endless photo shoots with a sadistic photographer (Desmond Harrington), dress fittings, runway shows, and parties.
Lots of parties.
Midway, the story shifts into a bloody revenge tale about three girls Jesse has wronged on her way up the ladder: two fellow models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee Kershaw) and a lesbian hair-and-makeup artist with a taste for necrophilia.
Jena Malone is sexy and menacing as the stylist who goes all Fatal Attraction when Jesse rebuffs her advances. Pushing the envelope farther than you thought possible, Refn has the three girls unleash hell on Jesse. The ending is gory, strange, and really funny.
A bold visionary artist, Refn seems able to revel in the culture of instant gratification while also subjecting it to critique. Since his breakout work, the Pusher trilogy, he's created a body of mind-blowing cult pictures including Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive, and Only God Forgives.
In The Neon Demon, Refn lashes out at the dehumanizing effects of the market, where any object or person can be assigned a price. Jesse is reduced to a consumer product without agency.
Yet there's something else going on. The Neon Demon also has a religious dimension. The ritual sacrifice of girls, it seems to suggest, is a new cult that defines and sustains our society.
What's difficult to figure out is whether Refn believes his own cant. Does he love the world he depicts or despise it?
The Neon Demon
sss1/2 (Out of four stars)
yDirected by Nicolas Winding Refn. With Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote, Alessandro Nivola. Distributed by Broad Green Picture.
yRunning time: 2 hour, 57 mins.
yParent's guide: R (disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, profanity).
yPlaying at: Area theaters.