Saturday, 15 October 2016

"Beauty isn't everything. It's the only thing."

It barely seems possible, but Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn's 10th feature is an even more extreme exercise in high style, ponderous pacing and stomach churning grue than Only God Forgives (2013). A slow burn horror movie set in the fashion world of Los Angeles, it features home invasion, vampirism, supermodel cannibalism and gorgeously lensed lesbian necrophilia. Unsurprisingly, it became the most divisive film at this year's Cannes Film Festival, prompting both walk outs, boos and standing ovations in roughly equal measures. Imagine America's Next Top Model written by Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring) and directed by Dario Argento (Suspiria) – it is cool, baffling, darkly funny, vapid, visually stunning and in its last third, completely crazy. A cult afterlife surely beckons.

The story is a simple and familiar tale – an ingenue comes to town, ruffles feathers and incites payback – but Refn turns it into a patience tester. As sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) becomes fêted in the fashion world, the first hour is glacial in pace and tone, an endless round of bizarre photo shoots (at various points Fanning is stripped naked and covered in blood, then burnished in gold paint), nightclub posing and beautiful women being bitchy. Turns out her youthful freshness is coveted by an industry that spits women out at 21. Encouraged by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) Jesse soon becomes the It Girl among high-end fashion photographers, leaving catty cat walkers Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) to accentuate their pouts as they eat her dust.

If all this sounds like an attack on a culture that is obsessed with the way things look, it isn't. Refn isn't attempting to satirise the modelling world so much as presenting a horribly disfigured view of it. The performances are mannered, the dialogue is pause filled and deliberate, and there isn't an ounce of interest in either conventional narrative or character development. Here, style is form – vivid and vapid.

What Refn is concerned with is image and the filmmaking on display here is simply stunning. Every shot is a style magazine spread at 24 frames per second. From the neon nightclubs and stroboscopic catwalks, to the shimmering swimming pools and night time skyscrapers that glitter like diamonds on crushed velvet. The camera tracks and prowls with exquisite precision, full of mirror metaphors, triangular symbolism and sumptuous images – drenched with dread, sexual threat and a hypnotic electro score courtesy of Cliff Martinez (Drive). Jesse's motel room (owned by a terrifically creepy Keanu Reeves) plays host to a mountain lion and a terrifying moment with a knife. In any other film this would be the height of the twisted weirdness. In The Neon Demon, it is just the beginning.

For when Jesse, realising the extent of her youthful power, moves out of the motel and into the her own mansion, the film enters a new zone of madness, vomiting up a finale that is funnier than all the foreboding promised. Even the aforementioned lesbian necrophilia is tongue in cheek, the laughs as black as blood in the moonlight. The juvenile glee Refn takes here is the closest the film comes to having genuine feeling. As well as skimming off Argento, Mario Bava (The Bay Of Blood) and Walerian Borowczyk (The Beast), it is a film that seemingly teems with a vast array of influences – Cat People (1982), Heathers (1988), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Black Swan (2010) – yet still feels like it it can only come from the mind of Refn.

At times challenging and frustrating, The Neon Demon struts down a narrow catwalk, but pulls off the unique feat of being both bravura and hollow – much like the world it depicts.

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