Nicolas Winding Refn / Elle Fanning , Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves / Horror / 2016 / 18 / 117mins
Danish auteur Nic Refn continues his fascination with horror with last year’s The Neon Demon, finding that beauty brings both glory and a gory end.
Small town girl Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 19 (*cough* 16) year old who has big dreams. She knows all too well that her only ‘gift’ is her natural beauty so she pursues a career as a model by running to, where else, LA. Jesse gets a contract, much to the dismay of older models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). Makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and budding photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) develop a fascination for Jesse but watch as her narcissism grows and grows. What goes up must come down.
The key to unlocking The Neon Demon is the Male Gaze. There’s long, drawn out shots. Perverse slow motion. Men stalk, observe and invade Jesse’s dreams. This film is all about fetishism, of both beauty and women, and as such is a wonderful visual critique of modern society. Even women will kill for her looks – a phrase taken all too literally. Whilst a visual pun on ‘consumerism’ is the main punchline, there’s infinite more interpretations: witchcraft, sexual desire, doppelgangers – the whole gothic spectrum.
With this in mind, don’t take the title at face value. The Neon Demon is a loose reference to how Jesse stands out and becomes twisted by her own beauty – a very Lacanian proposition. There is no literal demon running havoc (sadly). However, Refn could have shaved half an hour easily with consistent pacing. The emphasis on beauty would have been lost but engaging, disturbing dialogue could have opened a new branch to the ‘sexual predator’ symbolism.
Leading lady Fanning has maturity beyond her youthful years. Her composure to develop two distinct personalities – egotistical monster versus naïve country girl – is a triumph considering the lack of speech. Glusman’s Dean… what to do with good ol’ Dean. The love interest is purely there as a marker, an anchor to reality. Whilst it’s cute at first, and gives Jesse a human touch, his “you’ve changed” rant is all too clichéd. Thankfully other minor roles filled by the likes of Keanu Reeves (as motel manager Hank) aren’t so mainstream. Their robotic nature conjures feelings of perpetual monstrosity in this consumerist world – bleak would be an understatement.
A contemporary update of 80s club music was a baffling score. Early club scene aside, it is not in keeping with what you see onscreen. The conflict is jarring, but not a death knell.
This is a film that demands repeated viewing. Even with limited dialogue, there’s so much to absorb in each shot. Few will be bothered with Refn’s latest, but film nerds will be in heaven. A technically gifted horror from the heir to the Lynchian throne.
Film as a Film – 4 / Target Audience – 4 / General Audience – 2
The Neon Demon is available on DVD and On Demand
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