Model behavior

Blood is renowned in fashion for its slimming effect.

Blood is renowned in fashion for its slimming effect.

Rated 2.0

The Neon Demon is a stylish, shallow movie about the stylish, shallow world of fashion modeling. Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn lingers over every carefully posed composition. He makes the Stanley Kubrick of Eyes Wide Shut look positively breakneck.

The picture opens on a woman lying sprawled on a white sofa. The camera takes in her head lolling back, her arms and legs askew, her glassy staring eyes, the gaping wound in her throat, the pool of congealed blood on the floor around her.

It’s a shock, but it’s also a pose. The woman is alive, and Refn cuts to her trying to wipe the stage blood from her neck and shoulders with a few ineffectual tissues. She doesn’t look womanly now; she looks like a little girl lost, barely able to remove her own makeup. A makeup technician takes pity, and they strike up a conversation. The model is Jesse (Elle Fanning), newly arrived in L.A. to break into modeling, living in a fleabag motel where the manager (Keanu Reeves) prowls the rooms looking for runaways to rape. The makeup artist is Ruby (Jena Malone), who responds to Jesse’s helplessness with a solicitude that is half maternal, half carnal.

Things begin to happen for Jesse. Doors open, casting directors take notice. She’s only 16, but one agent (Christina Hendricks) doesn’t want to know. “Tell them you’re 19,” she tells Jesse. “Eighteen is too right-on-the-money.”

Other models eye Jesse warily in their metaphorical rearview mirrors. As she becomes more in demand she’s no longer in their rearview mirrors—they’re in hers, and the wariness turns hard. We see malice in their eyes, even as they’re careful to let no expression carve lines on their smooth faces.

Refn stages Jesse’s progress from wide-eyed naif to steely ice queen as a series of lurid tableaux punctuated by languid strobes, cold blue edges as sharp as razor blades, and slo-mo cascades of glitter. It’s a movie of surfaces, not depths, with banalities passed off as insight. (“Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”) Elle Fanning’s screen presence (more natural than her older sister Dakota) somehow draws us in; we almost believe this girl/woman would rise so quickly and effortlessly.

Then, as we’ve been half-expecting all along, Ruby makes advances to Jesse, and Jesse rebuffs her. The Spoiler Police will howl if I reveal exactly what happens next, but Ruby vents her sexual frustration in a manner that Refn clearly intends to shock and disturb us.

And something weird happens. As if sensing that he’s crossed a line, Refn plunges all-in, and his movie goes absolutely stark raving nuts, becoming a hallucinatory jumble that defies even the nightmare logic of surrealism.

In the end, The Neon Demon’s style deserts it, and we realize that the substance was never there in the first place.