Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Elle Fanning, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Jena Malone
Released on 8th July 2016
So after all the kerfuffle at Cannes – booing, a standing ovation, the usual – Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon has arrived in the UK.
I did say this was a film from Nicolas Winding Refn, didn’t I? I thought I should check because he’s very insistent that you know: his name is plastered all over the opening titles and the final credits. So are his initials, to the extent that it seems he’d prefer to be called NWR nowadays. Of course, there could another reason for all that. Like pure ego.
And if that’s the case, he’s chosen a subject matter to go with it. The world of modelling. Jessie (Elle Fanning) is still in her teens, but arrives in Los Angeles to pursue a career as a model. With youth and beauty on her side, she has the added bonus of an innocent air that the camera loves, even if other models regard her with suspicion. As she rises up the ladder, her success comes at a price as she’s surrounded by predators, human or otherwise, all of whom want a piece of her.
An amalgam of tension, suspense, horror, beauty and utter insanity, this is a film that’s impossible to categorise. And I have a distinct feeling that’s exactly what NWR had mind. The thriller side involves Keanu Reeves as a sleazy motel owner with a taste for young girls. It gets grotesque and bloody in the final section of the film – just a touch of cannibalism here and there – and there are scenes that are just out-and-out bonkers. And it’s those moments, as well as the stunning visuals, that are part of the reason it’s so watchable. The other is that you’re transfixed by wondering what’s going to happen next and, when it arrives, you can’t believe what you’re seeing.
Back to the visuals, though, because this is where NWR takes things to a completely different level. They’re highly stylised, brilliantly choreographed and dazzling to the point of hypnotic. Apparently, NWR has called this his 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m assuming that the number of scenes with pure white backdrops prompted that comment. If they didn’t, then I haven’t a clue what he’s on about. But I have to admit, he does know exactly how to make craft a film for your eyes only, so to speak.
Those outstanding visuals make up for the overly-familiar, slim plot – and, at the same time, show it up for what it is. This is a film about how beauty is a curse, pure and simple. It counts for everything in the world of the model, it generates jealousy, hatred and a desire to possess that beauty, metaphorically and literally. In her childhood, Fanning’s Jessie was told she was dangerous: actually, it’s her beauty and apparent innocence that puts her in peril.
There’s been much debate the film’s misogynistic tone, one that I didn’t actually pick up. Yes, the photographers and designers treat the models like objects – stand up, look at the camera, sit down – and there’s a cold distance and contempt between them and its mutual. It manages to stay just on the right side of exploitation, or at least until the final quarter of an hour and then it goes completely OTT. That last 10/15 minutes could have been cut and nobody would have noticed: it’s almost as if NWR was so absorbed in the story, that he couldn’t bear for it to end.
Don’t even think of trying to put this in a box: if you’re an NWR fan, it won’t even occur to you. It’s stunning one moment, uncomfortable the next, there are times when you’re frustrated and others when you’re simply baffled. But I’ve gotta hand it to NWR. It’s never, ever boring and you just can’t take your eyes off the screen.
The Neon Demon is in cinemas now and reviewed on the latest edition of Talking Pictures.