THE NEON DEMON (France | USA | Denmark/TBC/110mins)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Elle Fanning, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves
THE PLOT: Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to LA to chase her dream of being a model. On her first shoot she meets Ruby (Jena Malone) and the two become fast friends. When Jesse’s star starts to rise however, she attracts the ire of older models who are being overlooked.
THE VERDICT: ‘The Neon Demon’ marks director Nicolas Winding Refn’s return to Cannes, after his previous film ‘Only God Forgives’ also competed for the Palme D’Or at the festival. As divisive as the film that went before, ‘The Neon Demon’ tries to be a beautiful examination of jealousy and desire, but while it succeeds in being beautiful, it is as vapid, superficial and uninteresting as its subject matter.
Elle Fanning leads the cast here as Jesse, the target of all the desire and envy in the film, and this is an interesting role for the actress to take now that she is 18, as it well and truly cements her as a grown up star on the rise. Easily playing a 16 year old aspiring model, Fanning seems to revel in the superficiality of the movie, making Jesse ethereally beautiful; but the actress also hints at something darker lurking just below the surface, making this an assured performance from the young actress. It’s just a shame that Fanning, and the rest of the cast – which includes Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote and Desmond Harrington – are let down by a vacuous film that focuses so much on style at substance is forgotten, and what few metaphors are to be had are hammered home with a sledgehammer.
In terms of script, it seems that Nicolas Winding Refn simply opened a copy of Vogue – or any other fashion magazine you care to mention – and decided to make a film about that. Additional writing was done for the film by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, but it is hard to pinpoint just what these women brought to a film that is so misogynistic, sexist and graphic. The film focuses heavily on the visual, which is admittedly beautifully shot by Natasha Braier, but once it becomes clear that there is little more going on here, ‘The Neon Demon’ goes from exhilarating to exhausting. The film is filled with comments on the fashion industry, such as “I’m pretty; I can make money from that” and “I would never say you’re fat, doesn’t mean someone else won’t” – the latter delivered by Christina Hendricks – that seem meaningful but end up just being superficial and underline the horrible real world cliché that women hate other women. As well as this, the screenplay seems determined to shock for the sake of shocking, with scenes of attempted rape between two women and necrophilia thrown in as well.
As director, Winding Refn gets a strong performance from Elle Fanning, but the camera is so obsessed with her face that it begins to feel rather pornographic and exploitative, rather than a celebration of this young woman’s beauty. The pacing of the film is a mess, with the story being so paper thin that in order to reach the 2 hour running time, unsurprising slo-mo scenes with thumping electronica pervade the film. This is nothing new; we have seen this from Windin Refn before, and the director seems to be regressing as an artist, rather than moving forward.
In all, ‘The Neon Demon’ tries to make comments on the nature of female relationships, but through laboured metaphor, drawn out pacing and a paper thin story, the film doesn’t really say much of anything at all. Elle Fanning is strong in her understated role, and the heightened and stylised world of the film looks absolutely stunning on screen, but ‘The Neon Demon’ is misogynistic, exploitative and ultimately boring.
Review by Brogen Hayes

Cannes Review - The Neon Demon
Review by Brogen Hayes
  • filmbuff2011

    A new Nicolas Winding Refn film is always going to be provocative. The Danish director’s last film, Only God Forgives, split critics and audiences right down the middle (this reviewer was a firm admirer). That’s likely to happen again with The Neon Demon, which was met with equal parts boos and cheers at Cannes recently. But in a summer of overblown blockbusters, it feels like a breath of fresh cinematic air.

    16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an aspiring model. She’s a country girl who has followed that time-honoured tradition of moving to the bright lights and golden-baked sunshine of Los Angeles. Picked up by photographer Dean (Karl Glusman), she’s told by talent agent Roberta (Christina Hendricks) to act older. She soon befriends make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who takes the younger girl under her wing like a protective older sister. She might just need protection, whether it’s from predatory photographers and fashion designers who recognise what Ruby describes as Jesse having ‘a thing’. That thing is a combination of youth, innocence and purity – something which older models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) soon smell, like fiery cats sensing competition from a new arrival. ‘Why have sour milk when you can have fresh meat?’ says Sarah, clearly the more dangerous and obsessive of the two. As Jesse tries to conform to the strict, brutal standards of the modelling industry, this draws some unwanted, potentially murderous attention…

    First off, this reviewer has to say that he really, really enjoyed The Neon Demon. It’s one of those films that will swirl around in your head for days afterwards, as you try to absorb its meanings and incredible visual and aural style. Or maybe not, as this is undoubtedly a Marmite movie. Clearly, you have to be in the mood for it and be willing to be taken on a wild journey by Refn into the darkest corners of the female mind. The female of the species is certainly deadlier than the male. Refn certainly seems to think so, as the men in the film are nowhere near as bright or in-tune with their surroundings. Whether the film is misogynistic is down to interpretation – but this reviewer didn’t feel it was. If anything, it’s a celebration of how mysterious and unpredictable young women are around each other, as they vie for the lingering gaze of male attention on their looks. And what unpredictability…

    The third act really goes off the rails here, but is all the more challenging and enjoyable for it. Trust Refn to push audience buttons repeatedly and ask audiences to confront taboo subjects, like fellow Dane Lars Von Trier. These later scenes may provoke guffaws and walk-outs, but there is an insane logic to it all. That is, if you’ve bought into its world. The cut-throat world of fashion modelling isn’t this literally cut-throat, but Refn is poking fun at it and suggesting that some women will do anything to get ahead. Or maybe they just want to get a head. And this is an industry where you’re apparently too old at 21. That makes Jesse a diamond in a sea of glass, as one fashion designer (an uncredited Alessandro Nivola) describes her as.

    The film is absolutely stunning to look at, designed to within an inch of its life. Refn’s visual compositions, via cinematographer Natasha Braier, could be paused and framed at any moment. The thumping soundtrack by Cliff Martinez and eerie sound design make the film a cinematic treat to be savoured on the big screen, not on the small screen where its impact will be diminished. In a bold move, Fanning has moved out of those pretty girl-next-door roles and taken a firm step into adulthood. She gives a transformative performance, from ingenue to self-aware, self-proclaimed dangerous girl. The other performances are pitched a little high, perhaps deliberately so given the heightened nature of threat coursing through the film.

    While it may be slow in spots, it’s never boring. There’s so much to admire in this film, whether it’s spotting horror movie homages to A Nightmare On Elm Street (hands stretching through walls) and the 1982 remake of Cat People (dangerous animal loose in a motel room) to Refn’s trademark use of colourful lighting to suggest darker shades of personality. There’s even a move into Grand Guignol which sends the film spinning off into delirious directions, much like the audience as the credits roll. Whatever you make of this film, you’ll be talking about it afterwards. How many films this summer can that be said of? This reviewer soaked up every second of it and is ready for a second helping. The Neon Demon is a triumph of design, performance and execution – an intoxicating descent into madness. ****