There aren’t many movies you come away from thinking, well, I’ve never seen anything like that before. The Neon Demon is one of them.

Nicolas Winding Refn, the writer/director of Valhalla Rising, Bronson, Drive and Only God Forgives sets his latest movie in the world of fashion. I enjoyed the dark, disturbing and maniacal aspects of his earlier movies, and I had no idea how that distinctive artistic sensibility would translate into a movie about models, catwalks and clothes. It seemed about as far removed from the world of Winding Refn’s previous movies as you could get.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old aspiring model who arrives in LA, dreaming of making it big. Armed with photos taken by sort-of boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) who happens to be an amateur photographer, she has a meeting with Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) at a modelling agency and soon she’s getting auditions and jobs as a fashion model. 

The story arc is similar to Naomi Watts’s Betty in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. Both are blonde, pretty, naïve young women lured by the glitz of Hollywood and the promise of wealth and fame. Both start to have bizarre experiences that make us question their grip on reality. But if Lynch’s movie shows how the weight of those dreams can be crushing when they go unfulfilled, The Neon Demon shows that being successful can be equally destructive.

Making her way in the competitive world of professional modeling, Jesse catches the eye of famous designer Roberto Sarno (Alessandro Nivola), and immediately becomes the target of other models. Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee play two of Jesse’s rivals, and their insecurity and corresponding jealousy are bubbling at or near the surface in every shot. They believe in the age-old maxim of mobsters and schoolgirls that you should keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Jesse develops a friendship with make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), a person who seems to offer good advice and care for Jesse’s best interests. But she eventually reveals that she, too, has her own motivations. Fanning, who can alternate between vulnerable teenager and vindictive diva just in changing the way she blinks, is amazing here. Keanu Reeves has a small but memorable part as the manager of the motel where Jesse is staying, and his character is somehow more creepy and menacing because he’s Keanu Reeves.

The competition among the models heats up, and the tension builds to a third act that will probably turn off a lot of people. What happens to Jesse, and how we find that out, is something I’ve never seen in a movie before. On the literal level, it’s darker, more disturbing and more maniacal than anything I was expecting from a Winding Refn movie. On a symbolic level, there are several layers of meaning that all serve the theme, summed up nicely in the movie’s tagline: Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

There is also a scene toward the end with Jena Malone where she does something I’ve only ever seen depicted in a movie once before, and nowhere near as graphically as it’s done here. With The Neon Demon, Winding Refn continues to test the boundaries of what’s acceptable in popular movies. As with his earlier films, you get the feeling his foremost consideration is in creating a work of art, and from there, it’s up to the audience to draw its own conclusions.