Let us not mince words: when the director of Drive makes his version of a Dario Argento movie that abruptly turns into his version of a Lucio Fulci movie, the question was never if I was going to like it, but if I'd be able to choke down my enthusiasm enough to admit that, objectively, it might not actually be the best movie of the current century. And of course, objectively, The Neon Demon isn't remotely close to being that good. The film is nastily superficial, and intentionally so: it's a story about Los Angeles, city of visual surfaces and industrial cultures that reduce women to the sum total of their outward appearance, and to make its points about that subject, it embodies the thing it tries to analyze. "The style is substance" is a phrase I've grown to despise, since I think there cannot be such a thing as a movie in which the style isn't the substance (it's a visual medium, after all), but if there was ever a movie to earn that description, The Neon Demon is it: a depiction of the horrible dehumanising abuses suffered by fashion models that works in large part by stripping its protagonist of her human depth, and letting us marinate in how empty and synthetic that feels.

What this all means, in the execution, is that director Nicolas Winding Refn's scenario (which he turned into a screenplay with the help of Mary Laws & Polly Stenham) hinges on one of the hoariest old chestnuts in the movies: a pure young woman arrives in Los Angeles hoping to make name, but she is beset up on by jealous rivals, rapacious power brokers, indifferent landlords, and all the rest, and there's just that one sweet boy looking out for her, but he's pretty much a pill and neither she nor we hope that they end up together. The girl in question is Jesse (Elle Fanning), 16 years old and possessed of an ethereal beauty that earns the wrath of models Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) when they see her cleaning up after a photo shoot conducted by the bland, nice Dean (Karl Glusman). A shoot in which we first see Jesse, in the movie's long opening take, slumped over and dripping fake blood in copious quantities. It's the first time the film makes the gesture of blending the sexual objectification of beautiful women with acts of messy violence, and assuredly not the last: this is, to an extent, the thesis statement of the picture. Jesse, Gigi, Sarah, and make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), whose fascination with Jesse's beauty is of a plainly more erotic register than the mere jealousy of the others, get to talking about how all lip coloring products are either named after fruit, or suggest sexual attraction, and Jesse is hit with the question, "Are you food or sex?" There's not much subtlety here, let's just say.

So it's about a culture that fetishises the youth and beauty of women and then devours them alive in attempt to possess and commodify that youth and beauty; not a new theme, nor has this the finest and most sophisticated screen treatment it's received, but it gets the job done. It's also about other things: like the color red, and the feel of negative space, and the psychological horror of being pursued and desired and treated as an object, along with more traditional horror, though this doesn't show up till the end. But when it does, it reveals that the whole movie has basically been a vampire film (Winding Refn has cited Countess Bathory as an inspiration), and retroactively makes things that merely seemed odd earlier in the film, or at worst prurient (Ruby's homoerotic leers, for example) turn out to be foreshadowing of the savage psychic and fleshy harm that the other women intend to mete on Jesse.

Even so, there's a profound sense throughout the film of an incipient threat lurking. Some of this comes through performance, and the way that Malone, Heathcoate, and Lee circle around the carefully blanked-out Fanning (who is much, much more gifted as an actor than this role requires or permits, but at the same time that sense of wasting Fanning's talents ties back into the film's themes) like sharks or wolves smelling blood. Some of it comes through what is depicted: there's no missing how the photo shoot with legendary photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington), who paints and otherwise manipulates Jesse's body, is a symbolic rape scene, with all the upsetting sense of danger and cruelty that implies. And there's a unique and special kind of horrifying feeling that comes from seeing a mountain lion appear suddenly and inexplicably in the film, almost like a Surrealist add-on, with thin edge lighting to give it the general aspect of a ghost, some half-seen threat stalking the darkness. There's also a terrific score by Winding Refn's regular composer, Cliff Martinez, that uses drawn-out electronic notes to create a generally dessicated, disquieting mood of dissonant textures.

Mostly, the film's feeling of danger comes entirely from its use of color and framing: Argento, I said, and I shall repeat myself. I have no idea if Winding Refn specifically intended The Neon Demon to borrow from Suspiria, but that's exactly what it does in bold, unmissable ways, with its routine use of fields of solid color against which Jesse is set (usually in perfectly centered compositions) to maximise the impression that she's being swallowed up by a sea of scorching, fire-engine red. Or other colors: the scene where Jack molests her is in the middle of bleak white, like some kind of hellish Apple commercial. But red is certainly the most telling color choice for a movie that's largely predicated on blood and lust, and Winding Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier use it shamelessly and to enormously great effect. The Neon Demon, befitting its title, glows: it is lurid, aggressive, overpowering, using the oppressiveness of its color palette, accentuated by the huge swaths of negative space that tend to fill (that is to say, not-fill) the frame, to rudely yank us from one extreme emotional response to the next.

The film is an exercise in pure affect: it employs only the barest slip of a plot, whose outcome we can see generally coming from the very beginning (though not, probably, the specifically tawdry and artfully repulsive form it takes), but it does fantastic work diving into the subjective feelings of the protagonist operating within that plot, using the most aggressive visual and auditory techniques. This is not a movie looking to be broadly liked, if only because of how acutely it doesn't bother so much as pretending that it's terribly worked up about storytelling, to say nothing of the violence. And it certainly does nothing to defend itself against charges of being absolutely ridiculous, particularly in the blend of visceral horror and juvenile gross-out humor in the last five or ten minutes - grotesqueness that's captured in the sharply polished textures and framing of a glossy fashion magazine ad, no less. The marriage of extremely beautiful images with barbaric content is of course the point, which doesn't make it any less trashy (however gleefully), nor does it make this film any easier to recommend or defend. The Neon Demon is devoid of delicacy or sophistication, but there's something wonderful about its blunt-force approach anyway, and its fearless commitment to non-stop sensory overload.