Cannes 2016: Refn's 'The Neon Demon' is Wickedly Vivid Subversion
by Alex Billington
May 19, 2016
This film is going to piss off some people, and I love it even more because of that. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn returns to the Cannes Film Festival again after his previous film, Only God Forgives, was panned by critics in 2013. His latest, titled The Neon Demon, was booed at the press premiere yet again - but I'm on the opposite side as all of those people. This film admittedly doesn't have much of a real story to follow, but it does have oh so much more to offer. The Neon Demon is a totally wicked, totally messed up, neon-drenched study on vanity/narcissism featuring one hell of an exhilarating synth score. It's subversive and Refn knows it, so much so that he's almost laughing at the audience (and the people who hate his films).
Young actress Elle Fanning plays a young, inexperienced model who shows up in Los Angeles to join the modeling industry. She quickly gets representation from an agent, played by Christina Hendricks, and ends up getting gigs in no time. This draws the attention of a few other models / beautiful women, played by Jena Malone, Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote. The film could not be more perfectly conceived in its brutal portrayal of narcissism - and I'm talking about narcissism as an obsession with one's own body (being perfect). These women are so obsessed, and so obsessed with Fanning's underage perfection, they literally try to eat her to gain her beauty. It's fucked up, but the kind of fucked up you laugh at with a devilish grin.
Refn achieves this perfect portrayal of narcissism by combining his own sleek, neon style with flashy horror imagery first utilized by Dario Argento. There's some deceptive moments that don't have the best pay off, some weird moments that seem out of place, and some indulgent moments where the score plays out while neon colors flash on screen. But if you're a fan of this insanely polished visual style, it's easy to look past these flaws to find the real beauty below the skin. It's not as empty as some critics are claiming. That beauty being Refn's viscous attack on narcissism and vanity and the industry (perhaps industries?) built around these shallow traits. He shows just how ruthless and how disgustingly obsessed with beauty some folks are.
I'm not at all surprised that so many critics hated this film (see here), it's almost expected at this point. That doesn't matter though, because I don't care, and Refn doesn't care, he made the film he wanted to make and it's nothing more than that. Sure it may be self-indulgent at times, but that actually adds to experience. It's unlike anything I've ever seen before, even though it has touches of Black Swan and Heathers and borrows from Dario Argento, it's still a vividly mesmerizing dream-like creation that gets appropriately bloody and gruesome and nasty. It's still beautifully shot with another amazing score by Cliff Martinez. Refn knows how to make films that really get under the skin of certain people, and that makes me love his work even more.
Alex's Cannes 2016 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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