Any movie screened at the Cannes Film Festival has a distinct disadvantage; the audience’s reception can be more savage than a wildcat attack. With boos, walkouts, and profane viewer commentary, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest endeavor, The Neon Demon, managed to survive the sharp claws of one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Does The Neon Demon deserve such a strong level of outrageous backlash? Not exactly.
Initially, I experienced a very visceral reaction to the film. It was nearly unwatchable, dreadfully boring and very stilted. I’ve since warmed to it, but I can’t say that it’s a great piece of cinema. My quick pitch? The director of Drive reimagines Showgirls. If that idea intrigues you, then you may like The Neon Demon.
The plot is as follows; having recently moved to L.A., Jesse (Elle Fanning) is living in a motel off the interstate and answering Craigslist posts in an attempt to build her modeling portfolio. Young and beautiful, she quickly catches the eye of make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone) and model agency manager, Jan (Christina Hendricks in what amounts to basically a cameo). After that, Jesse begins to garner a lot more attention than she anticipated and she learns that attention can be dangerous.
Like the models who populate its filmic world, The Neon Demon is stunning yet ridiculously thin. It has humorous, as well as grotesque, moments; however, the film doesn’t blend these key foundations well enough to achieve a tonal balance across the film’s visage.
Refn’s L.A. is savage and opportunistic. The cinematography by Natasha Braier is phenomenal. Each frame bleeds with that hyper neon glow that isn’t sleaze itself, but suggests that strange and awful things could happen at any moment. The score by Cliff Martinez—a frequent Refn collaborator—works perfectly to depict Refn’s cinematic L.A. It’s a hybrid of techno and dream-like synths that convey this world’s more dreamlike tone.
As the film dissolves into more surrealist moments, it completely loses its tonal footing. The surrealism is weaved into the narrative relatively early, gripping the film, as Jesse becomes more successful. At the same time, the film stays remarkably grounded in a reality, playing several shocking and comedic moments, straight. This ultimately elicited unintentional laughter, undermining the film.
The actors’ performances seem slightly self-aware, especially with the more over-the-top intentionally comedic moments. The performances of Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) trend the closest to “so bad it has to be intentional” territory. This self-awareness works against the film, especially in the more violent moments. There are a couple of highly effective sequences that successfully work the blend of comedy and surreal dialogue; however, most of the film’s muddled tone, left me more befuddled as to how I was supposed to interpret several moments and directorial choices.
It’s a shame that the film can trend so shallow after Only God Forgives, which offers Refn’s analysis of manhood and heavily incorporates symbolism. The deepest the film is willing to go is that women can be both dangerous and beautiful, like a wildcat.
Overall the film is redeemed by its cinematography and score, but nothing more.