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  • Writer's pictureHalle Arbaugh


Elle Fanning in 'The Neon Demon.' Amazon Studios

CANNES - Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film 'The Neon Demon' is an intentionally provocative one, featuring Elle Fanning as Jesse, a 16-year-old who moves to Los Angeles to launch a modeling career. Attempting to create horror in everyday aspects of femininity, such as society’s focus upon youth, beauty, and fashion, the film unfolds like an edgy magazine editorial meant to be appreciated for its aesthetics rather than substance.  It opens with a scene that is indicative of what is to come: Jesse is sprawled upon a chaise lounge, her face covered in glittery makeup and her body adorned with blood, as a camera flashes from off-screen. The violence here is just a prop, we learn, the blood just another element of the picture, and Jesse is just a body upon which clothes and makeup lie.

This image resurfaces throughout the film as Jesse drifts listlessly through a collection of seedy endroits. In a bathroom at a party she meets Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), two veterans of the industry. While Gigi has done everything under the Beverly Hills sun to modify her appearance, bragging easily about the numerous cosmetic surgeries she’s undergone, Sarah is quiet and looks down upon Jesse with a hollowed gaze that is at once cool and hungry. “What does it feel like?” Sarah later asks Jesse, “to walk into a room and it’s like, in the dead of winter, you’re the sun?” Jesse answers, “It’s everything.” It is an exchange meant to resonate, one that reiterates the symbol that Sarah is an older Jesse, one who has already been the desired, youthful girl in town, but who has been tossed out like a past-season’s dress.

If this notion were explored in a more understated way, 'The Neon Demon' may have emerged a poignant portrait of the different ways in which women deal with objectification and aging. Lee’s haunting Sarah and Heathcoate’s flippant Gigi contrast nicely, their respective struggles to carve paths in the city’s assembly-line of success-based-upon-beauty at once difficult and rendering to watch.  However, midway through, the film begins to crumble into a montage of clumsily-strung-together scenes that, like the lavish makeup and staged photos, feel as though they’re meant simply to shock.

Yet even shock or some degree of horror isn’t accomplished. By the end of the film, Refn has dealt with cannibalism, lesbian necrophilia, rape and murder, but never does Jesse become a character about who we care. Fanning’s performance is more ghost-like and flat than sunny, even though it is Sarah who’s meant to be the ghost. It’s as if the director, who achieved acclaim with 'Drive' (2011) and its ultra-violent, spurting energy, got carried away with the eye-catching plasticity of the shots and forgot to put forth a watchable plot with defined characters, and by the end of the film, any critique on femininity has been lost in the mess of grotesque deeds carried out by pretty faces.

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