When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, some critics booed Nicolas Winding Refn’s controversial work for its depravity. To specify what is particularly depraved about it would be too much of a plot spoiler and the anticipation and intrigue is everything, so I shall say no more, except this: brace yourselves.
The Telegraph critic Robbie Collin was one of the few to dismiss the criticisms and awarded it five stars, calling it “the most divisive film to have screened in competition at Cannes this year.”
Refn himself added: Look at this reaction. F— the establishment. Youth culture, take it or leave it but you can’t deny it.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of it myself. I mean, I love cinema, I love films that get reactions (both good and bad), and after seeing it at a preview screening including a Q&A with NWR himself, I realised, I’ve actually seen much more depraved and ‘controversial’ material in Pasolini’s films. It isn’t a big deal, and people must realise that. Yes, it’s disturbing, but it’s 2016 and I guarantee you’ve seen (and will see) much worse.
The Neon Demon is a social satire set in the cut-throat world of the Los Angeles fashion scene. It’s a violent study of our obsession with beauty and perfection and the costs involved in pursuing such ventures. It’s about innocence (and the loss of it), purity, revenge, sex, obsession and almost nothing to do with fashion. It’s a film that David Lynch should’ve made years ago. Thankfully, he didn’t…because if he had, he wouldn’t have been able to cast Elle Fanning and given how wonderful her performance is, would’ve been a great shame.
Elle Fanning is Jesse. She’s young, she’s ambitious and she’s beautiful. Jesse is an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles to find a modelling agency and forge a career for herself.
She soon meets make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and two models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) who take an instant dislike to the new, younger girl and potential rival.
Fanning is incredible as Jesse. She gives a mature and meticulously nuanced study of the transformation from innocent little girl lost, to confident woman in her element. It’s a role she should be immensely proud of. The production design is sumptuous. Awash with neon lights and colours acting like sirens, luring us in to our doom.
But the real coup here is the score. Composer Cliff Martinez delivers us an hypnotic, spellbinding sounds of electro-pop synths which, at times, are truly terrifying to listen to.
If I’d written this a few weeks earlier I’d have said it lacked something. But I’ve had a change of heart. It isn’t perfect, but then again, there isn’t much I don’t like about it.
The performances, the design, the music: they’re all wonderful, and when my three favourite elements of film-making come together (I’ll ignore the script in this case because minimal, economical dialogue is exactly what is needed here), then it makes for very satisfactory viewing.
No, it won’t be for everyone. Yes, it will make you queasy. NWR like to shock. You have been warned.