Nicolas Winding Refn shocks Cannes with 'The Neon Demon'
Elle Fanning, Courtesy of Festival de Cannes, used with permission
The Neon Demon by Moira Jean Sullivan, accredited film critic for Festival de Cannes Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's 'The Neon Demon' premiered May 20 in the Cannes official selection, a slick stylish techno-thriller that guarantees a visceral viewing experience despite its subject matter. 'NWR' as the director likes to sign himself ( as in the credits) tackles the subject of beauty in a disturbing yet commanding way. At the press conference he said he has a wife and daughters and how beauty affects women is of interest. There are however many historical tropes running through this film: sexualized violence, blood rituals, female sacrifice and anorexia, and vampirism and that is surely not the beauty sacred to a father and husband.
Jesse (Elle Fanning ("Super 8") is the central protagonist who is staying at a cheap motel in LA run by a sleazy proprietor (Keanu Reeves) - in and on the set sparsely. Most of the young women who stay with him are either working as models or model wannabees. With a slim portfolio of photos taken by the congenial young photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) who she met online (he shoots here as a corpse with her throat slit), Jesse finds instant success and has the kind of body size and face that women envy and try to copy or emulate. She is only 16 but signs with a modeling firm that promotes her as 19. Jesse poses a threat to other models immediately, in particular Gigi (Bella Heathcote) whose body has been worked over and Sarah (Abbey Lee - "Mad Max:Fury Road") with an attitude that keeps her on the sidelines. Both would do anything to have Jesse's beauty and her modest but bold confidence.
Jesse's first contact in modeling is Ruby, a makeup artist (Jena Malone "Sucker Punch") who moonlights at a mortuary making dead women look as beautiful as they once were in life. From there Jesse meets the photographers and fashion designers of LA who see something in her that is special and rare albeit their own fantasies - a forever young vulnerable automaton. Their roles are important and despite their creepy unfashionable demeanor they are insatiable in their appetite to create artificial reality through images and design. Jesse seems unaware of her pristine beauty at first, but who would believe it. The use of animal motifs early on in "Neon Demon" crudely signifies the predatory nature of the characters from the lion in Jesse's motel room to the stuffed wildlife at Ruby's housesitting gig.
The soundtrack is written mostly by Cliff Martinez ("The Knick") with some licensed songs including "Demon Dance" by Julian Winding, NWR's nephew. Without the impeccable art direction and music , which is garish, brutal and invasive this would not be such an arresting story, for both elements help embroider the story immensely and make it a cinematic extravaganza.
"The Neon Demon" is destined for "Amazon Studios" next summer and opens in theatres June 24. It was one of the best films at Cannes and top on the list of remarkable movies. It's a film that has made the 69th Cannes Film Festival edgy and vital despite this year's rather mediocre selection.