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FEATURING: , , Bella Heathcote, ,
PLOT: A 16-year old girl travels to Los Angeles to become a model; her rare beauty makes her an immediate hit, but not everyone in town wishes her success.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Since I’m incredibly jaded when it comes to cinematic strangeness, when I get the rare opportunity to watch a weird movie in a theater, I like to pay attention to the reactions of the other theatergoers to try to assess the film’s baseline level of audience alienation. At the well-attended late night screening where I saw The Neon Demon, at two separate points the young man sitting directly behind me let out a distressed “WTF are we watching?” My own viewing companion (a film fanatic with mainstream tastes) complained Demon was both “too arty” and “too trippy.” On the other hand, there were no confirmed walkouts—although one woman did step out briefly when a certain grossout scene commenced, only to return when it was over. The lack of mass departures was discouraging, but the audience’s stunned reactions were generally strong enough to convince me that Refn’s onto something genuinely weird here.
COMMENTS: Stylishly unreal and bluntly provocative, lit by neon and covered in glitter, The Neon Demon may be the most beautiful and least meaningful art film of 2016. It begins with radiant waif Jesse (Fanning) posing for necrophilia-themed glam shots, and progresses through an expressionist Illuminati pyramid catwalk triumph and gratuitous grossout scenes (which I won’t spoil, except to say that multiple taboos are tweaked, sometimes in the same scene) to a bloody climax. The film is washed in Natasha Braier’s unreal lighting schemes, a la Suspiria—or even more on point, a la a bigger-budgeted Beyond the Black Rainbow—and the characters are clothed in Erin Brenach’s bizarrely conceived metallic/pastel costumes, with the entirety choreographed to a chilly, abstract electronic score by Cliff Martinez. Sensually, Demon is a pulsating, glittering delight, although anyone looking for intellectual sustenance will find little nourishment here (the film’s unsubtle message is “L.A. feeds on the beautiful,” hardly a novel insight). The whole experience is like attending a rave held at Hollywood’s most fashionably nihilist discotheque.
The roles are underwritten—or, more charitably, archetypal. Fanning does well enough as the wunderkind of pulchritude, a luckless gal who knows she has one asset in life and is determined to use it. Jena Malone is more impressive as a make-up artist who takes it upon herself to play big sis to the industry comer, while Heathcote and Lee portray a pair of catty anorexic working models, on the wrong side of 21 and eaten up with envy at Jesse’s success. The marginal male characters are just as obvious—a couple of domineering, vaguely threatening fashion impresarios, and aspiring boyfriend and photographer Dean, who, upon learning Jesse is only 16, hesitates ever so slightly before leaning in for a good night kiss. Of the masculine predators, the standout is easily Keanu, playing against type as a low-rent sleazeball operating a motel catering to runaways. Given the character’s utter depravity, the role was brave and unexpected for a waning matinee idol. After 2006’s A Scanner Darkly and now this dark cameo, I will declare that Reeves’s penance for his masterpiece-wrecking Jonathan Harker is officially complete.
Fashion isn’t art, it’s design, so can—or should—a movie about the fashion scene be artful? Individual shots from The Neon Demon are pure genius—yet, there’s not much that ties the film together conceptually, other than its obvious cautions about the high-stakes world of professional superficiality. A fashion maven rightfully scoffs at the notion that Dean (who claims, without much visible evidence, that Jesse has unseen depths) would be interested in the model if she wasn’t singularly gorgeous. Just like it’s subjects, The Neon Demon is shallow and beautiful. And though beauty isn’t everything, it actually counts for a lot.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Pretentious and self-indulgent, it seems tailor-made to appeal to lovers of the obtuse and inscrutable until it takes a left-turn into schlocky, gore-drenched splatter imagery.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)