Like its predecessor, Only God Forgives, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, was also booed at Cannes. Unlike its predecessor, only the film’s final third might merit any such reaction.
The film starts as a glossy, lurid scrutiny of beauty and what it elicits.
Elle Fanning embodies radiant ingenue Jesse whose arrival in Los Angeles stirs lust and possessiveness in the male fashion set — Alessandro Nivo as a verse-declaiming designer, Desmond Harrington as an intense, hollow-cheeked photographer — and jealousy amid a catty clique of surgically enhanced models (played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee).
The only real kindness comes from Jesse’s clearly infatuated friend and patron Dean (Karl Glusman) and sisterly makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), whose uncertain agenda evokes its own sense of danger. Even the neon triangles that stake out the catwalk look like they’re out to do someone harm.
Refn’s L.A. is a mesmerizing nightmare where the young and trendy stand frozen in nightclubs, back-lit, like mannequins, and cougars stalk motel rooms. It’s a surreal, violent, deeply psychosexual cityscape populated by predators, like Keanu Reeves’ sleazy proprietor, and set to a dark ambient synth score by frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez.
The film deftly plumbs these thematic depths with both clarity and unpredictability, though in the final third the focus shifts from a detached assessment of beauty to a visceral plunge into shock value and potent symbolism. A tantalizing Under the Skin about the skin itself, Cronenberg’s Crash where the paraphilia is flesh instead of steel, The Neon Demon is a masterpiece — albeit a hugely flawed one.