Nicolas Winding Refn – or NWR as he prefers to sign himself now – returns to Cannes with fashion world-based horror movie The Neon Demon. The film is a postmodern Women Beware Women and, despite the presence of two female co-screenwriters in the form of Polly Stenham and Mary Laws, perhaps the most misogynistic film of the decade. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a young girl from the country. A small town ingénue and orphan, she arrives in Los Angeles with the dream of making it as a model, equipped with some disconcerting glamour shots of Jesse with her throat slit taken by internet creep Dean (Karl Glusman).
Here, Jesse is befriended by Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist with a coven of two fellow beauties, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), and taken to parties. She quickly lands a modelling agent called Jan (Christina Hendricks) and starts to bewitch star photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and a homosexual fashion designer (played for some tired guffaws by Alessander Nivolo). Jesse is “so hot right now” and seems unaware of the jealousy that is beginning to mount. Coloured gorgeously – all violets, turquoise and cadaverous green like the finest Mario Bava – Refn deviates from the Italian master in not bothering with anything as compelling as a plot. He’s more interested in collecting a series of cinematic moments, compelling images captured beautifully by cinematographer Natasha Braier, and sequences in which Cliff Martinez’s pounding score can do its work.
Characters aren’t particularly necessary here either. Everyone represents a ‘type’: the vengeful lesbian, the bimbo, the bitch. Add to this a mountain lion and Keanu Reeves as seedy motel manager Hank and poor Jesse is surrounded by danger, even as she radiates beauty and looks set to take the fashion world by storm. There is some humour to the proceedings and a sense that we’re not to take any of this too seriously. However, the fashion world and comedy are not necessarily the best of bed fellows – as the recent Zoolander 2 proved – and throughout The Neon Demon the terms “Blue Steel” and “Magnum” will shimmer irresistibly in the mind at precisely the point that we’re supposed to take things more seriously.
Of course, you could argue that The Neon Demon is all about misogyny. We have speeches about what women do to themselves and each other – the cosmetic surgery, the bulimia and the body shaming – to achieve a career in the industry. But none of this can stand up as a critique, especially not when mouthed in a film which is as lecherous as Reeve’s hotelier. Sure, those sequences are dream sequences, but we can’t be sure they belong to the characters or the director. The fact of the matter is that Refn has now become so predictably shocking that the truly shocking thing for him to do would be to make a film without attempting to shock. With an end title sequence that plays like a beautiful Saul Bass joint, perhaps he’s bidding for something more commercial and conventional. The next James Bond movie, say.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty