DIR: Nicolas Winding Refn • WRI: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Steinham • PRO: Lene Borglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval, Nicolas Winding Refn • DOP: Natasha Braier • Mus: Cliff Martinez • ED: Matthew Newman • DES: Elliott Hostetter • CAST: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Karl Glusman, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Allesandro Nivola.
16-year old Jesse (Fanning) arrives in LA with the hopes of making it in the cut-throat modelling business. There she encounters make-up artist Ruby (Malone) and her model friends – Sarah (Lee) and Gigi (Heathcote). While Ruby is relatively friendly, the others don’t take too kindly to Jesse, particularly when she successfully signs up with a modelling agency fronted by intimidating Roberta Hoffman (Hendricks) and quickly starts rising up the ranks as the model all the top photographers want to shoot, who claim her to have an indefinable quality of beauty that no one else possesses.
From this simple set-up the archly divisive auteur Refn takes us on a lurid, campy, gorgeously shot, magnificently scored journey towards a last act that sees the Danish provocateur push towards new levels of grotesquery and gleeful cinematic insanity. Part satire, part horror, all Refn.
Whether you love or loathe him, Refn is a filmmaker that cannot be ignored and nor can his formal brilliance or aggressive individuality be denied. While there may be shades of Argento, a dab of Lynch and a touch of Borowczyk about the place, this is quite simply a film that could be made by no other filmmaker.
With this and the – in my opinion – unfairly maligned and highly underrated Only God Forgives, Refn, rather than move down a more commercial route after his 2011 crossover hit Drive, has instead gone into more oblique territory. This film once again demonstrates Refn’s dis-interest in narrative and character development. This leads to his work frequently being dismissed as having style but no depth. But surely such arguments are redundant when it comes to a filmmaker like Refn. He’s not a socially-engaged artist but rather a fantasist who follows in the tradition of aestheticism, favouring form over everything else.
There are elements of cruel satire and post-modern winks about The Neon Demon. The film appears to turn into something akin to the world it satirises as a glossy, shrill music video plays over the end credits. However, Refn’s engagement with the world of fashion, though cutting as it is, remains predominantly as a means by which Refn and his cinematographer Natasha Braier can forge stunning, outlandish and original imagery and combine it with Cliff Martinez’s brilliantly otherworldly electronic score to create an intoxicating atmosphere.
The actors all equip themselves admirably amongst the insanity. Elle Fanning is excellent as Jessie. She grounds the film in a certain reality while maintaining the cool distance we’ve come to expect from Refn protagonists. Jena Malone is wonderfully demented and dangerously kind-hearted as Ruby. Malone plunges herself exuberantly into the mounting tastelessness of the last act. Abbey Lee is cold and intimidating but shows fragility, also, in a scene in which a Nivola’s sleazy designer fawns over Jessie and humiliates Sarah, showing her nothing but contempt as he forces her to walk around in her underwear.
Ultimately, The Neon Demon can be seen as a continuation of Refn’s desire to juxtapose a formally rich, ‘art’ film aesthetic with the free-wheeling disreputability of ‘trash’ and ‘grindhouse’ cinema. His post-modern, aesthetic cinema is certainly not for everyone but is a must-see for film-goers seeking the idiosyncratic and the outlandish.
18 (See IFCO for details)
The Neon Demon is released 8th July 2016