After having prepared for lift-off with his last film, Only God Forgives, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has left the planet with The Neon Demon, a stultifyingly vapid, ponderously paced allegorical critique of the modeling world whose seethingly jealous inhabitants can’t wait to literally chew each other up and spit each other out. As stylish looking as the fashion industry’s most expensive photo shoots, this languorous, vampiric send-up of a field very close to movies, in that both are based to a great degree on good looks, fashion and the latest hot thing, could become a guilty pleasure for jaded scenesters and specialized audiences looking for the latest outré offering. But the Amazon Studios release will mostly be received with yawns, walk-outs and/or derision, as it was at the first Cannes press screening, where it was far more lustily booed than any other film this year.
Refn has displayed an ever-decreasing interest in narrative and a growing tendency toward effect-for-effect’s sake in the 10 films he’s made during his 20-year career, to the point, in his last two outings, that he seems actively hostile toward story for story’s sake. And where his previous Los Angeles-set feature, Drive, cast an arrestingly fresh eye on the city and its locations, the L.A. on view here is that of fashion shoots and high-end real estate brochures.
The setup is a staple of movies dating practically to the beginning: A fresh-faced new girl arrives in town, quickly turns heads and is groomed for stardom. The latest arrival is Jesse (Elle Fanning), a teenager first noticed by makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), whose interest is clearly as much personal as it is professional. Signed by a top agent (Christina Hendricks), the naive, professedly virginal Jesse is immediately sent out to top photographers, who immediately shun the previous favorites, notably two played by the similarly blonde Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, in favor of the even younger Jesse. As Ruby so eloquently puts it, “She has that … thing.”
The inexperienced Jesse is easy putty, completely malleable in the pros’ hands. Photo shoots, which usually become sexy, snappy, drugs-and-music-propelled sequences in movies, are here slowed down to a crawl, which creates a vague and weird mood, but not a compelling one.
Jesse also has an indecipherable relationship with a dull young man named Dean (Karl Glusman), who would clearly like to get something started with her but mostly tags along like a faithful dog. He doesn’t even advise her to change residences. Even after she starts making money, Jesse continues to reside in Pasadena’s seediest inn, a filthy place presided over by the screen’s most dubious motel manager since Norman Bates, who’s played by no less than Keanu Reeves. Jesse remains in the place even after it’s invaded at night by a mountain lion.
For the viewer to stay on board past this point is to have one’s suspicions about the motel manager well confirmed, along with having one’s boredom threshold be seriously tested. Jesse finally accepts Ruby’s invitation to retreat to a lavish empty mansion. Rather than accelerating the pace and tightening the tension, as is normally advisable in a story’s third act, Refn instead slows things down even further in a long stretch in which female jealousy and perverse acts of vengeance are explored to unsavory and extensive effect (there’s also a scene of lesbian necrophilia for good measure). The climactic action gives a whole new dimension to the concept of a full-body cleanse.
The intended metaphors and commentary about the interchangeability and disposability of bodies are entirely clear, although from the evidence it would appear that Refn is perhaps even more entranced by the surface glamour of the world he so voluptuously depicts than he is repelled by it. The uniformly attractive actors look like they’re simply doing as they were told, although Fanning, in the central role, seems almost impervious to the film’s built-in critique, just as her character, up to a certain point, simply floats along based on the desires and wills of others.
The film’s main allures are its visual and aural sensations, based in Elliott Hostetter’s elaborate production design, costume designer Erin Benach’s endless parade of eye-catching creations, Natasha Braier’s lustrous cinematography, Cliff Martinez’s seductive score and Refn’s undeniable visual panache.
There have been many previous occasions when sumptuous filmmaking craft has been placed at the service of dubious and derelict material, but The Neon Demon is this year’s model.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Opens: June 24 (Broad Green Pictures)
Production: Space Rocket Nation
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenwriters: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham; story by Nicolas Winding Refn
Producers: Lene Borglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval
Executive producers: Christophe Riandee, Brahim Chiqua, Christopher Woodrow, Michael Bassick, Steven Marshall, Michel Litvak, Gary Michael Walters, Jeffrey Stott, Manuel Chiche, Matthew Read, Victor Ho, Rachel Dik, Thor Sigurjonsson
Director of photography: Natasha Braier
Production designer: Elliott Hostetter
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Editor: Matthew Newman
Music: Cliff Martinez
Casting: Nicole Daniels, Courtney Bright
Not rated, 117 minutes