This could be the year’s most divisive film

REVIEW

THE Neon Demon was one of the most divisive films at Cannes this year, marked equally by boos and standing ovations.

Depending on who you talk to, The Neon Demon is either a wildly successful formalist experiment bordering on avant garde or stupendously pretentious and confusing. Neither reaction would be an exaggeration. Where you sit on the spectrum will depend on your openness to or patience for unconventional and challenging filmmaking.

The actual story is nothing new. Sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to LA from a small town with dreams of stardom in her soulful eyes. Because of her natural beauty, she easily makes inroads into modelling as agents and designers become magnetised by her mere presence.

At a photo shoot, she meets make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces Jesse to model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Gigi and Sarah are intimidated by Jesse’s rising position in the industry, viewing her as a threat.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has said one of the reasons he made The Neon Demon was because he wanted to explore female violence, after having made three back-to-back movies focused on male violence (Only God Forgives, Drive and Bronson).

There’s no doubt that in this, the fashion industry is violently toxic and filled with ghoulish people constantly exploiting each other’s insecurities.

The Neon Demon makes judicious use of mirrors and reflections to tackle the uncomfortable concept of narcissism, and not just on an “it’s the fashion industry” surface level. Refn is clearly interested in narcissism in individuals and the ease with which that emerges from the depths of an individual in the right circumstances.

Fanning’s age brings an extra dimension to that narcissism, representing a generation obsessed with projecting a particular type of outer image on social media, having grown up with reality TV idols selling them a false dream.

If you do have an affinity for something a bit different, The Neon Demon is worth seeing, even if you think you might hate it, because it is undeniably beautifully made.

The first shot is Fanning lying on a gold lounge, her blue eyes open, raspberry red lips perfectly formed, adorned in an electric blue dress and splashed with crimson blood. The textures and hues present in this frame sets up the rest of the movie, a visual smorgasbord to devour.

Refn has an eye for composing a frame — he luxuriates in the details, the colour and the lighting, all of which form breathtaking tableaus. His tracking shots show an incredible understanding of space and how that translates to the viewing experience.

The electronic score by Cliff Martinez, who also worked on Drive, is a perfect complement to Refn’s aesthetic, pulsing at the heart of every frame, scene and sequence.

But this kind of filmmaking is also what can, and has, put many people off.

Its languid pace becomes very conscious with even the steps between characters’ dialogue in any given scene moving at a slowed-down speed. This works if you have an audience who wants to spend the time taking in every aspect of what they see and hear. But if you’re not captivated by Refn’s hyper-stylised approach, it can grate. It can also come off as a highly accomplished music video, but one that runs for almost two hours.

But if you give yourself over to The Neon Demon, let yourself be completely immersed in its hypnotic fever dream, it will stick with you, burrowed in your subconscious. It truly is a work of art.

Rating: 4/5

The Neon Demon is currently playing at Dendy Newtown in Sydney, Cinema Nova in Melbourne, Palace Centro in Brisbane, Palace East End in Adelaide, Luna Leederville in Perth and Palace Electric in Canberra.

Continue the conversation on Twitter with @wenleima.

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