Nicolas Winding Refn isn’t an auteur; he’s a provoc-auteur – an architect of hyper-stylised worlds that exist in lustrous neon-lit shadow, and thrive on the pain and trauma that are prominent in the murkiest recesses of the human condition.
Refn’s latest descent into darkness, The Neon Demon, is every bit the fucked-up fairy tale fans of the director will be hoping for. It’s a film that opens on a model draped seductively across a chaise longue; her eyes soulless, and her body covered with the blood that pours from her neck. Suffice to say that the sequence Refn’s concludes his creation with two hours later is one of such outrageous depravity, it almost makes that establishing shot appear warm and inviting.
Central to the story is Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model of innocence and vitality; she’s only 16, but as her manager (Christina Hendricks) advises her early on, it’s best to say she’s 19, “18 is too on-the-nose”. One early scene sees Jesse out with her photographer boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman), gazing over LA from the top of the Mulholland Highway; an angel looking out to a city devoted to them. The irony being that by the time this land of dreams has finished with her, she’ll be more disposed to be dancing with the devil.
The plot initially takes the form of a satirical polemic – Refn’s script, collaborated on with Mary Laws & Polly Stenham, permeated with a dry, wicked wit – designed to expose the cruel and degrading realties of life lived in the beauty industry; it is to fashion, what David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars was to films. Here, youth is the most precious commodity, far more priceless than money. And once you’ve turned 21, “you might as well retire”. Jesse navigates this vacuous world with virtuousness, Elle Fanning’s electric performance a delicate flower next to the predatory thorns of Jena Malone’s makeup artist, and Abbey Lee’s aggressive veteran of the business.
Underneath Fanning’s wholesome façade, however, is a determined strength that’s every bit as destructive as that of her friends, and after Jesse is hired for a runway show, and propelled towards the upper-echelons of the modelling hierarchy, her admirers turn to adversaries.
From here, Refn changes tact and once more it is business as usual for the inflammatory filmmaker; substance and subtext disregarded entirely, in favour of his formidable style. His direction is a vicious assault on the senses; fierce, forceful, and yet fundamentally infuriating due to the director’s deliberate pacing. There are strong moments that will shock you to your core with an assertive confidence that Refn is recognised for – lesbian necrophilia, anyone? But all too regularly the film slackens to a slow-shutter speed.
The juxtaposition of DP Natasha Braier’s shady aesthetic, and composer Cliff Martinez’s seething electronica score augments a menacing atmosphere that grows evermore vampiric as the dénouement draws closer, but isn’t enough to mask the screenplay’s emergent vapidity. Refn may consider the life of a model to be a hollow existence, but did he really need to embrace that emptiness to tightly?
Stars: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Runtime: 110 mins
Country: France, USA, Denmark
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