Cannes Film Festival: The Neon Demon

In Competition
The Neon Demon

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Desmond Harrington, Karl Glusman, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves

by Joanna Orland

“Beauty isn’t everything – it’s the only thing,” says one of the many vacuous characters in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest polarizing film The Neon Demon.  No words ring truer with this film as this shallow portrayal of beauty, envy and cannibalism is pure trash – but my goodness, the world of women looks stunning through the male gaze.

The hollow core of The Neon Demon is not the film’s key flaw.  What is flawed about this film is much more sinister as it unabashedly glorifies violence against women, both sexual and otherwise.  Without meaning, without exploration, without consequence, this violence is celebrated for our amusement, so much so that it is completely shocking when Refn’s dedication of the film to his wife Liv appears boldly just before the end credits.  How can one love a woman and then dedicate this horrid idea to her!?

There is much to consider deplorable about this film, but in spite of this I found it sensational, mesmerizing and hugely entertaining.  I hate myself for this, especially as I am a female voice who is angered by the many gender and sexuality bashing tropes present in this film.  But as a filmgoer, I can’t help but love beautiful trashy movies including this one.

Drive meets Under the Skin meets Mean Girls meets Cannibal Holocaust – this film is bat shit crazy.  The aesthetic is Refn’s signature style, familiar to those who’ve seen Drive, with vivid colours and a synthesized soundtrack.  Every shot is gloriously artistic, completely engulfing the viewer.  The beauty of Elle Fanning’s character Jesse emanates on screen through bold makeup and fashion choices, and lingering shots of her in motion.  It certainly helps that Jesse is a young model trying to make it in Hollywood – much easier to create the abstract and beautiful imagery found throughout the film.  The ambient and abstract artistry of this film is also reminiscent of Under the Skin, although a much harsher take on this style.  The Mean Girls reference comes into play as Jesse befriends a makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and her two model friends (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) who are basically the Mean Girls or Heathers in question.  Jealous of Jesse’s natural beauty, the two models despise her while makeup artist Ruby wants to outright fuck her.  The Cannibal Holocaust reference, well, you’ll have to watch the movie to understand this one.

The Neon Demon‘s cast is nicely filled out by Christina Hendricks as a modeling agent who promises Jesse success due to her outstanding beauty.  Alessandro Nivolo as the vacuous fashion designer whose view on beauty is seemingly as shallow as Refn’s doesn’t add depth to the film, but heightens the absurd superficiality of the situation.  Desmond Harrington as a photographer adds yet another perverse element into the mix.  Most sinister of all of the males (besides Refn himself) is Keanu Reeves as a motel manager who leches on his female guests, going as far as to mention a Lolita fantasy which is yet another valid metaphor for this film.  As is “Hollywood will eat you alive”.

In spite of my criticism of this film, I was completely mesmerized by its visceral style and bold trashy choices, even though I may not agree with most of them.  Fascinating as much as it is divisive, The Neon Demon leaves a lasting impression, for better or for worse.




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