Young girls in middle-of-nowhere European villages used to be told that if they were beautiful enough a Prince would find them, take them back to his castle, and they would live happily ever after. Change Europe for America, the stories for magazines, the Prince for an agent, the castle for Los Angeles. You now have the quintessentially American fairytale that is Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016). (Even the “Neon” in the title could be an update of the colour typically used in the titles of fairytales.) Indeed, The Neon Demon is nothing less than a slick, sick modern fable laced through with the imagery of fairytales and myths. But these fantastic reference points have gone under the knife; disguised in Americana they are made fresh again.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a small town sixteen-year-old who has “It.” Whatever “It” is the audience can’t see, but when she moves to LA she’s the fairest in the land. She walks into the room and jaded agents turn their heads, everybody wants her; it’s almost preternatural. Naiveté and isolation put her at risk, she has no family, something strange is going on at her skeevy motel, and her closest friend wants more from her. When she falls in with a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), and her model friends she begins to embrace her beauty. But the beauty industry proves to be still more sinister.