Release: Friday, June 24, 2016
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn; Mary Laws; Polly Stenham
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Elephant in the room: there are more lines of dialogue in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film than there were in his last. That wasn’t enough to stop The Neon Demon from scoring Refn his second-straight booing at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is still delicate as fine china when it comes to plot but this is Refn as I like him: at least somewhat accessible. Booing him this time seems more like a ritualistic exercise than a just reaction.
Cautionary tale about a teen who puts her high school career on hold to take modeling gigs in Los Angeles epitomizes the Refn-ian vision: lots of bright, pretty colors colliding and compensating for the stark lack of light elsewhere on screen (i.e. each time there’s an alley, a corner or anything capable of throwing shadows); a heightened sexuality that frequently veers into the perverse before fully tipping over into depravation. Most characters stare more than they speak, their inactivity designed to draw attention to form, not function. A psychosexual soundtrack courtesy of regular collaborator Cliff Martinez.
Yeah, so . . . about that staring obsession. Unlike in Only God Forgives it actually serves a purpose here. The pulpiest bits of the story concern the danger young Jesse (Elle Fanning, who celebrated her 17th birthday during filming) finds herself in when she becomes the object of a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone)’s affections. Jesse’s natural beauty starts posing a major threat to other models, specifically Sarah (model-turned-actress Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), women terrified that their time in the spotlight is quickly coming to an end with the arrival of such an angelic, naive presence. Long, lustful stares carry a tension that’s more palpable than it is logical: are we really supposed to believe one of these women is better looking than the other?
Passing glances evolve into death stares as Jesse catches the eye of Alessandro Nivola’s brutally cold fashionista. If haughtiness is an indication of expertise, this guy has had all the experience. Refn, self-described as a pornographer, remains steadfastly committed to the physique: cameras ogle over Jesse’s long legs and Rapunzelian hair constantly. As we transform from viewers to voyeurs, we become haunted by this combination of wanting to stop watching but being physically unable to do so. There’s just something so watchable about The Neon Demon, an obsession to know more that gave me flashbacks of the 2011 haunting beauty that was Drive.
Refn may still be a few challenging movies shy of earning comparisons to contemporary provocateurs like Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier (a fellow Dane), but here he is, persisting anyway. Once again the world as he sees it is a brutal, cruel construct, a jagged jumble of broken hearts and heinous acts carried out in the name of self preservation. Malone’s necrophiliac tendencies demonstrate the depths to which these women will sink to obtain whatever it is they perceive Jesse having over them. (What that was was never clear to me but then again, it’s been awhile since I last thumbed through an issue of Vogue.)
The Neon Demon doesn’t break much, if any, new ground in its exploration of the vacuum of happiness that is the fashion industry. It’s neither a history lesson nor a revelation. Perhaps the movie is best when we consider the specifics of the clichés, like how Keanu Reeves takes a stock character and turns him into something we come to fear or the metaphorical beauty of Jesse’s fall from grace landing her at the bottom of an empty pool. Or how uncertain we are that her fellow models are even human. Given the potency of this hallucinogenic trip, it’s safe to say that in 2016 Refn is found reaching for his 2011 highs rather than stooping to his 2013 lows. Thank the neon demons for that.
Recommendation: The Neon Demon represents Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most female-driven film so far. Some have dismissed this as a sexist, sadistic bit of pretense but that’s overly harsh. It may not be the most original film, nor one where we get all the answers to life’s problems but on the basis of its twisted, mesmeric visuals, The Neon Demon is further proof that Refn is a director to keep an eye on going forward. A great leap forward for the young Elle Fanning, as well.
Running Time: 117 mins.
Quoted: “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass.”
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