Writers: Nicolas Wingding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks
Running time: 118mins
What’s the story: Jesse (Fanning), a young small town girl hits the bright lights of LA seeking her fortune as a runway model. Supported by make-up artist Ruby (Malone), Jesse becomes the target of jealous fellow models Gigi and Sarah (Heathcote and Lee) and menaced by an intimidating motel manager (Reeves).
What’s the verdict: Intoxicating, dazzling, erotic and mysterious. OR: head-scratching, ponderous guff. Yep, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s second film to be booed at Cannes is as marmitey as could be expected.
After skewering machismo in both the Oscar-nominated Drive and his first Cannes ‘boo recipient’, Only God Forgives, Refn (along with his women co-writers) targets the commercialisation culture of the female body and the literal extremes of consumerism.
The result is this year’s Black Swan. Or America’s Next Top Model directed by David Lynch. Both are warm recommendations by the way.
On paper the plot is as size-zero as Jesse’s nemeses Gigi and Sarah, but the joy is in Refn’s telling, the Dane delivering his most directed film to date. A gorgeous, grisly panoply of Argentoesque colour design, Kubrickian camerawork, and Aronofskyified editing, set to Cliff Martinez’s Tangerine Dream-y score that lends the whole thing a weird sci-fi frisson.
Despite the gaudy LA nightlights and bleached out sunny days (vividly painted onto the screen by cinematographer Natasha Braier), The Neon Demon is dark and darkly comic. Chats in a nightclub’s ladies’ loo drip with venom, a runway audition is an exercise in squirmy awkwardness, photoshoots are quietly threatening, a knife-based home invasion mashes the surreal with the unwatchable. Even the recurring symbolic triangles that litter the set design seem intent on causing harm.
Like Ryan Gosling in Drive and OGF, Elle Fanning is captivating and inscrutable, flashes of anger betraying her passive gaze. Malone, Heathcote and Lee also impress as the women in Jesse’s life, possibly the personifications of a mountain lion that appears in Jesse’s motel room, Cat People style. In a rare bad guy role, Reeves has a mean-eyed ball as a sleazy motel manager cut from the same cloth as Harvey Keitel’s pimp in Taxi Driver.
For those worried The Neon Demon will match Drive for sudden, graphic violence, worry not, there’s nothing here to flip the stomach. Those worried The Neon Demon is a tame double XX chromosome retread of Drive, worry not, the final act mayhem is just as memorable, Refn’s camera observing outrageous moments far beyond the orbit of most movies.
Now, could Nic team up with Ben Wheatley sharpish?