THE NEON DEMON (Dir- Nicolas Winding Refn, FRANCE/USA/DENMARK, 2016)
Starring- Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Karl Glusman
UK Cinema Release July 8th
After making a big impression with his 2011 ultra stylish violent crime thriller DRIVE (which also ushered in a resurgence of electronic synthesised film scores now pretty common in soundtracks) Nicolas Winding Refn could have probably had the pick of doing some bigger budget, probably more mainstream studio orientated films. But instead he hit Cannes two years after DRIVE with the ultra stylish and even more ultra violent surreal crime drama ONLY GOD FORGIVES. It would be amusing to think that anyone who went into this film expecting DRIVE mark 2 would be instead hit with something that contained brutal torture, a neon drenched Bangkok hell populated by ruthless drug dealers and even more ruthless Karaoke singing police captains. It divided audiences entirely and even had some booing at Cannes, a concept I find ridiculous. Booing a film? Its not WWE or pantomime, its a film! Again crowds at the French festival booed his latest flick THE NEON DEMON after its screening though there were some who praised it as well.
But like his previous film, its going to be a dividing experience. Its interesting to note that in the screening I attended at HOME cinema in Manchester recently with Refn doing a Q and A he mentioned that he makes films that he likes and this might go some way to explain how he at once derives or frustrates expectations yet at the same time produces cinema that can be singularly interesting and original designed to confront and shock and with a nod to genre exploitation as well.
Set in the fashion world of Los Angeles, the film follows young hopeful Jesse (Fanning) who is desperate to enter the industry. She is on the lowest rung when we first see her, trying to find an agent and living in a scuzzy motel, ran by a lecherous manager (Reeves). She meets and flirts with aspiring photographer Dean (Glusman) who offers the only respite from her time in the city. At one shoot she also encounters professional make up artist Ruby (Malone) who brings her into a clique with two other supermodels Gigi (Heathcote) and Sarah (Lee) who offer bitchy remarks about the new member of the group. A meeting with an agent (Hendricks) who tells her to lie about her age and say that she’s 19, as 18 is a “bit too on the nose” (even though Jesse is actually 16) lands her a photo shoot. This soon leads to more jobs including a fashion show that eventually sets her on the course for fame in the industry. Yet her clique of friends have other ideas and slowly their true intentions and jealously starts to manifest itself in much more darker ways as they realise Jesse is on the up and up and they slowly start to fade away.
This is the first time Refn has a film where his main characters are primarily women. However, despite their gender they are pitched as being just as ruthless and vicious as the male characters in his previous films. The supermodel clique are a bitchy trio who eye up Jesse and even the steely eyed Sarah comments that “Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat.” A statement that is both ironic in its intentions in the latter part of the movie and in the first part where the group look at Jesse and that its not just her youth that is attractive but something deeper and someone they more than crave to be or to take.
It’s only Ruby who seems to be the only sympathetic, big sister type member of the group who comforts and emphasises with her, yet this even hides her own sinister intentions. Jesse also transforms throughout the film with her naivety at the start slowly succumbing to be a more aggressive and confident character. The scene where she starts to enter a more adult predatory waters that sticks out is in a fashion shoot, where a sleazy almost threatening photographer propositions her to strip naked and cover her in body paint. She seems un-phased with the proposition despite the photographers elusive almost misogynistic male gaze and control over his subjects.
But its her confidence and naivety that strike her further and further into this world and leads her into more darker regions where those in the industry figuratively and literally feed off her. Refn places the male characters in the background and for the few that do appear they seem almost predatory, such as the previously mentioned fashion photographer and Hank, the sleazy motel owner (an excellent against type turn from Reeves). Its only Jesse’s one time on/off fiancé, Dean, who seems to be the only decent almost sympathetic male in the film, yet even he seems almost weak and too innocent compared to the nature of the fashion industry and is eventually disowned by her in one scene which marks Jesse’s arrogance and eventual transformation.
Fanning is fantastic in the lead role and as is at the centre for most of the film going for broke in her performance that highlights her characters vulnerability, arrogance and naivety. The same can be said for Malone who is excellent as Ruby and appears in some scenes that certainly are eye opening and in casting the two models, Sarah and Gigi, Refn manages to elicit two very good support performances from Heathcote and Lee (who have been models themselves) as the couple of jealous cold as ice villains of the piece.
Visually the film is beautiful, acting almost like a fashion shoot or commercial in parts, heavily focusing on models beauty and figure to an almost visually leering gaze. Combined with a hypnotic, viscerally neon drenched look that is both surreal in its execution to the point of making Los Angeles look almost unworldly. Refn loves to shoot strong visuals, highly stylised apartments with kooky designs that add to a distinctive European way of looking at the city of angels, maybe even a sly dig or attack on the City’s artificiality and the fashion industry itself? There are even visual moments of surreal horror, splendour and irony throughout most notably in a scene where a mountain lion sneaks into Jesse’s motel room, which acts as a slight reference to Jacques Tourner’s CAT PEOPLE both in its execution and in an ironic nod to that particular films story of jealous predatory females.
While its art house aesthetic is visually on show, thematically the film has a certain surreal horror quality that whilst not being entirely a straightforward genre film still contains tips of the hat to Giallo cinema, such as SUSPIRIA and other entry’s into genre and exploitation cinema and even some of the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky (who Refn dedicated ONLY GOD FORGIVES to). Even body horror could be cited as an influence if not directly but in the films critique of the obsession of the body and characters willing to devour beauty, gaze at it and objectify it for its own dark intentions.
However it still comes out as being remarkably a Refn film in that he strikes beautiful visuals along with a surreal hypnotic quality throughout with a dash of some remarkably violent scenes and deliberately shocking scenes (lesbian necrophilia anyone?) to throw off and appal viewers sensibility’s and that certainly highlights the almost exploitation showman attitude that he displays. It wont appeal to many and most likely will frustrate many as well, and admittedly I will be seeing this again at some point as even after one viewing I came away still feeling like there is much on display here that might become clearer on a repeat viewing.
Yet at the same time as a piece of cinema THE NEON DEMON is both remarkable and original and confirms Refn as a director who most likely enjoys the noise and hype that develops around his films, but would not care what people think of them because as the man said, he makes films he likes.
THE NEON DEMON is out in cinemas on July 8th.