When The Neon Demon is released on 8 July you’re going to hear a lot about it. You’re going to see think pieces about alleged misogyny and/or gratuity, vitriolic tweets for and against the film and, if the Cannes crowd was left “reeling” by its “jaw-dropping depravity”, the casual cinema goer, who made a snap decision to see it instead of Captain America, is going to be left shivering in the corner of the multiplex.
But what point is there in spewing bile over a film that already gleefully spews ever about every bio-emission you can think of?
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) gets this, welcoming boos and at the UK premiere professing a desire to do for film what The Six Pistols did for music.
I was initially suspicious of the film when it was announced, ‘The Neon Demon’ being about the most ham-fisted metaphor for L.A imaginable, but it completely won me over.
We’ll get to why, but first, here’s a pretty exhaustive synopsis of the film:
Young, small town, aspiring model heads to LA to try and make it, finds the industry to be hyper-competitive, gets hunted down by rivals, searches for friends but finds foes at every turn.
This isn’t designed to be derogatory in its brevity, it’s just a very narratively simple film.
Drive (a good film) and Only God Forgives (a not so good film) were similarly linear and visual-focused, but The Neon Demon is Winding Refn’s most aesthetically ambitious film yet. I counted roughly 20 compositors and visual effects people in the credits and they were probably working overtime, as every single shot is so meticulously crafted, from the Kubrickian symmetry of the framing to the ‘Tron if it was a Vogue shoot’ lighting and the devastating use of make-up and costume design. There is creativity and innovation at every turn, with scenes like the one in which protagonist Jesse listens to a rape in the motel room next door through the wall which plays out as though she’s pressing her ear to a tent (it’s hard to explain, but you’ll know the bit I mean) leaving you sitting there thinking ‘well shit, I’ve definitely never seen that before.’
I don’t really need to say much about the performances, as it’s the camera doing the bulk of the work in the film, but Elle Fanning brings a pubescent vulnerability and awkwardness to her role which works perfectly against the film’s skeletal uber-bitches, particularly Jena Malone who is entrancing as ostensibly friendly and well-intentioned make-up artist Ruby. Men are refreshingly few and far between in the movie, but Desmond Harrington's photographer and Alessandro Nivola's fashion designer both manage to give memorable performances despite their minimal screen time. Keanu Reeves is also there, who is fast approaching a McConnaisance moment (the Reevesjuvenation?).
Winding Refn is fearless when it comes to depicting sex and violence (deepthroating a knife? check, morgue necrophilia? check), and it’s kind of admirable at a time when Tarantino can’t get away with light battery in a film without facing internet mob justice. I don't want to spoil it for you, but let's just say that the whole 'being chewed up and spat out by the system' metaphor turns out to be more than just a metaphor.
The Neon Demon is a silly film, and it doesn’t strain to be about anything as such or have a message. But at a time when films like Spotlight and 12 Years a Slave win Best Picture Academy Awards by default it is a completely refreshing cinematic experience. Winding Refn isn’t really trying to convey the hollowness of L.A. here, which is pretty much universally understood by this point, he’s inviting you into his sand-pit filled with glitter, lamé and diced organs and wants to pin you in your seat with bold and vigorous cinematography.
Go and see it, but maybe not first thing in the morning.
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