Cannes 2016: The Neon Demon Review

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The Neon Demon Is One of the Year’s Most Bizarrely Entertaining Movies

It’s also Nicolas Winding Refn’s best film yet.

The latest film from Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon, is perhaps his most divisive yet. After the success of his 2011 film Drive, Winding Refn moved into more experimental territory with Only God Forgives. His latest entry furthers his exploration of the peculiar in a film that is wacky, disturbing, and beautiful throughout.

Winding Refn uses shallow greed and jealousy as his entryway into the L.A. modeling scene. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a young model coasting her way through the cutthroat industry. To the displeasure of her superficial peers, Jesse is frequently labeled “perfect.” The other women must buy their beauty to find appreciation from photographers and fashion designers, but for Jesse it comes naturally. Jesse’s visual perfection makes her the ultimate object of desire. Professional photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington of Dexter) as well as make-up artist for the living and dead, Ruby (Jena Malone) – among many others – find themselves becoming obsessed over Jesse’s beauty. Winding Refn reveals the true horror of the industry when he shows just how far the other models will go to feel as beautiful as Jesse looks. Of course, madness ensues.

Using a combination of stunning neon-tinted visuals and a techno soundtrack, The Neon Demon is utterly hypnotic. With the help of his cinematographer and editor, Winding Refn has created a dreamlike – or rather nightmarish – creation that seems to defy the limitations of narrative cinema. It is completely transcendent from its opening titles to the closing credits. In a festival of long films, many of which seem to drag on infinitely, The Neon Demon ends in the blink of an eye. It is so engrossing that all sense of temporality seemingly ceases to exist.

The film’s success cannot be acknowledged without mentioning the influence of Italian director Dario Argento. In many ways The Neon Demon cannot exist without the influence of Suspiria. Aside from obvious visual similarities, the film features a similar narrative structure, swapping dancing witches for cannibal models.

Using the modeling industry, The Neon Demon explores the emptiness of beauty. Winding Refn creates a world in which every character wants more, yet the things they yearn for are entirely superficial. It is Jesse’s beauty that drives each of the characters mad with jealousy, not because she is able to get more work, but because her physical beauty makes her a more whole person. The visuals masterfully reflect the inner emptiness of the film’s characters. Winding Refn utilizes empty space to surround the models in all sequences depicting these women at work. Thus the inner emptiness of the characters is reflected in the emptiness of their surroundings. The film’s dragging techno score adds the visual bareness creating a perfect harmony of desolate seduction.

Cannibalism and more gruesome efforts are featured when The Neon Demon reveals all its tricks in a spectacular third act. A certain scene featuring Malone’s Ruby and a corpse in a funeral home prep room is easily the most shocking scene at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This sequence is one of many that points to Malone – who is doing career best work – as the real star of the film.

The Neon Demon is the kind of film that a viewer will have to get on board with from the very beginning, or risk spending a very miserable two hours in the cinema. Its prioritization of mood and visuals over actual plot is sure to frustrate the same viewers who hated Winding Refn’s previous film. If one surrenders themselves to the film’s eccentric exhibition, The Neon Demon can surely be recognized as one of the year’s most bizarrely fun films; a masterpiece that is Nicolas Winding Refn’s best film to date.

Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.