At the Cannes press screening of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s teen horror fashion thriller The Neon Demon, there reportedly were boos. That is no big deal — French critics especially love to show their distaste vocally. But as I say in my video review above, there certainly were no boos when I caught it at its Cannes public screening the next day. And I have a feeling the film-going audience, particularly the target female teen contingent, will appreciate this one a bit more once it opens via Amazon and distributor Broad Green Pictures on Friday.
The Danish-born Refn is a stylish filmmaker like no other, even when tackling violent, unsavory subject matter as he did in the critically acclaimed Ryan Gosling starrer Drive and even in the critically disdained Gosling starrer Only God Forgives. Gosling isn’t in this movie, but, quality-wise at least, it falls somewhere between the latter pair. When I ran into Refn before he was even in pre-production on Neon Demon, he told me it was his hope to make his next film a teen girl horror flick set in the Los Angeles fashion world. That he has done in spades, and the DayGlo pastel-y look of the movie (the cinematographer was Natasha Braier) is as eye-catching as the all-too-cool clothes and the models who wear them.
This is a movie with style to burn but not a whole lot of complex plot (the screenplay is credited to Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham). It does have a message though, or at least one that I have decided to lay on it. The cultural obsession with beauty on the outside is a dangerous thing, this film seems to be saying. It’s not tangible, but unfortunately in the world in which young Jessie (a perfectly cast Elle Fanning) finds herself emerging as a star, it can bring out the worst of us. Jessie comes to Los Angeles to be a model, and with the help of Jan (Christina Hendricks), a fashion exec, she soon is on her way to becoming the next “it” girl, much to the chagrin of two other would-be model superstars Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who want what she’s got. They are, to say the least, insanely jealous and territorial.
One of the opening images of Neon Demon shows Jessie with blood dripping from her neck to the floor but it is soon to be revealed to be just a fashion shoot. It’s also a visual warning of the kind of thing Refn may — or may not — have in mind for us later on. Nevertheless, it certainly sets an ominous tone. At any rate, Jessie does find a friend in this world, a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), and along the way different encounters, including a creepy Keanu Reeves in a memorable cameo. For most of the film’s running time it doesn’t even appear that this is headed in the horror direction, but the final act is a doozy and not all that predictable.
Refn is a great observer of current culture and knows how to play it out for audiences in abstract terms. He also has a wicked sense of humor as well as a great eye for, well, what to do with an eye. Fanning, who has seemingly grown up on screen, is really sailing through her teen years nicely and fits the bill as a young innocent who comes to be the object of so many, not always in a good way. The rest of the cast is just fine as well, and Refn has a true foreigner’s affinity for Los Angeles that enables him to show the city in a unique way that may not even be recognizable to most Angelenos like myself. Producers are Refn, Lena Borglum, Sidonie Dumas and Vincent Maraval.
Do you plan to see The Neon Demon? Let us know what you think.