When aspiring young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles, her youth, vitality and desirability are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will use any means necessary to get what she has.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With this film, Nicolas Winding Refn was back in Cannes in 2016 for his second time in Competition, following Only God Forgives (2013) the Bangkok-set crime thriller, starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas. His Pusher, Bleeder and Bronson films also attracted notice, and seem to have encouraged his bravura side, judging by The Neon Demon, a film of considerable cinematic interest, not least for its visual extravagance and its black fairytale treatment of the subject matter.
The former, bold, stylish framing and colours, tends to hide the latter, which deals with the beauty obsession from which young women in particular in or near the fashion industry suffer. Winding Refn makes his metaphor of this quite extreme and bloody, in that black fairytale way I mention, although not gory, as he shoots it with the mantra of 'designer bleed'.
We meet Jesse (Elle Fanning) on a couch, laid out like a beautiful, stylishly dressed corpse in electric blue gown, her throat slit, deep red blood staining her neck and the prop lounge. In perhaps the least successful part of the screenplay, it is young photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) who has set up the shoot. Unsuccessful because while Dean stays around as a wannabe love interest, he never touches a camera again, nor is his work ever seen, which makes him a rather one dimensional character imposed on the story for merely practical (screenplay) purposes.
Jena Malone is riveting as Ruby, who meets Jesse on arrival and offers friendship and support, but with a word of warning that Jesses's innocence combined with beauty are dangerous - to herself. Jesse later, in a key scene, recalls how her mother used to call her dangerous. We will remember that. Australian actress Bella Heathcote plays Gigi, a model, as is Sarah, played by angular Abbey Lee. Both are beautiful, as is Ruby, but casting directors have eyes only for Jesse. Jesse with a J, as in Jealousy ...
Fanning is the star, of course, but I mean that in a broader context: she is the star of the fantasy that Winding Refn creates and he is clearly inspired by her, endowing her with an aura the poor girl tries hard to live up to. He holds her face up close, he shoots her mid shot, long shot, upside down and finally ... broken.
Indulging in dream or fantasy sequences, Winding Refn comes close to self-indulgence when moderation would help, but then who the hell wants moderation in a film that is anything but moderate. As conflicted as I am about this film, I admire his zing, and love the score, for which Cliff Martinez won the award at Cannes.
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NEON DEMON (R18+)
(France, Denmark, US, 2016)
CAST: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
PRODUCER: Lene Borglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval, Nicolas Winding Refn
DIRECTOR: Nicolas Winding Refn
SCRIPT: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Natasha Braier
EDITOR: Matthew Newman
MUSIC: Cliff Martinez
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Elliott Hostetter
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 20, 2016