Talking Movies

July 7, 2016

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn returns with another artful garish provocation that elicited boos at Cannes. He must be doing something right.

the-neon-demon

Fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA with dreams of modelling. She impresses agency head Roberta (Christina Hendricks), even though her photos do not; so much for would-be boyfriend/photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) hitching his wagon to her rising star. Roberta pushes her towards legendary photographer Jack MacArthur (Des Harrington) who is immediately wowed by her innocent looks and shoots her. His instant interest is shared by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces Jesse to her sharp-tongued model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). But when Alessandro Nivola’s designer is also entranced, leading to successive humiliations for Gigi and Sarah in favour of Jesse, their claws come out. And Jesse, after a trippy catwalk experience, finds herself isolated when events in the worst motel in Pasadena take a sinister turn courtesy of creepy manager Hank (Keanu Reeves).

Refn got a kicking for Only God Forgives that would’ve broken many directors, but, very impressively, The Neon Demon is made with supreme confidence, and with absolutely no apologies – even signed NWR as a statement of artistic singularity. Whereas Only God Forgives gestured towards total abstraction there is a semblance of story here, but, even though he collaborated with playwrights Mary Laws & Polly Stenham on dialogue, it’s in the ha’penny place to the visuals. And the visuals work because Refn knows Cliff Martinez can provide a synthesiser score of wide range that can interpret images: in particular Jesse’s catwalk encounter with a blue pyramid, water, and a red pyramid, which tips its hat to 2001’s Jupiter sequence, and seems to imply that Jesse has communed with the Platonic Ideal of beauty and is thereafter a different and blessed person.

Martinez’s score is quite haunting and beautiful in its ethereal approximation of the timbres of marimba and celeste, but it also embraces great Vangelis Blade Runner washes of synth, as well as juddering techno, contrapuntal melodies, and, for a climactic syncopated cue, almost wah-wah guitar effects. Reeves plays terrifically against type, and his enjoyment is mirrored by Refn mischievously cutting from his introduction to a huge white space where one character initiates another. The Rover cinematographer Natasha Braier observes the scantily-clad models with Kubrickian detachment, complementing a startling scene where Jesse appears faced with sexual assault but is treated as an objet d’art, not human but a personification of beauty. Early on, regarding lipstick names, Jesse is asked “Are you sex or are you food?” Refn seems to imply Jesse as embodiment of beauty can be anything, except a person.

This is more accessible than Only God Forgives, but there will still be walkouts, because this is unapologetically an NWR film: which means mesmeric pacing, semi-abstracted visuals, a foregrounding of music, and outré violence.

4/5

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