The Neon Demon

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Neon Demon
"This is a film about greatness and those who have it thrust upon them."

Across film and television, studies show, only around 15% of central protagonists are female. Nicholas Winding Refn admits that he has been part of the problem, so in this case he specifically set out to tell a story about women. But where there has been a historical tendency to assume that a focus on women means a different kind of storytelling, Refn's film is every bit as brutal as his previous work. It's a film in which women are allowed simply to be people, which is ironic given that its central themes include depersonalisation and the objectification of female flesh.

Critiques of the fashion industry are hardly a new thing and in some ways Refn's version is curiously sanitised - its heroine, Jesse (Elle Fanning, successfully capturing that 'deer in the headlights' look after 14 years in acting) is 16 years old, which is really getting on a bit for a newcomer to the business today. She's advised by an agent (Christina Hendricks, who previously worked with her in Ginger And Rosa) to say, like a Barbara Cartland heroine, that she's just 19. But beneath the satire, the simple exposé and the studiously flattened effect is something much more sinister - a story about beauty that is more than skin deep.

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"I'm dangerous," says Jesse in a pivotal scene where she stands on a diving board, reflecting Narcissus, looking like she's floating on air. But is this vanity or simple observation? And who is she dangerous to? The first time we break away from the ordinary is when, returning home one night, she finds a cougar in her apartment, standing on her bed and emitting an unnatural roar. She's understandably terrified, but how much of it is terror of the demon within herself? Even for a model, beauty is a double-edged sword. Jesse is constantly coming into contact with predators, from the cougar to her sleazy and possibly rapacious landlord (Keanu Reeves, turning in an unusually strong performance as if relishing the chance to break with type). A photographer abruptly arranges a closed set, orders her to strip and then plasters her with gold paint, but it's not clear whether his motivation is sexual or whether he simply wants to invoke fear, to bring out her intensity ahead of the shoot. She's an it girl, a natural, but to take her career further she has to walk right on the edge.

If there is any lasting innocence in the film, it's embodied by Karl Glusman as the young photographer who tries to look out for Jesse and dreams of winning her affections, but even he, unwittingly, is trying to own and control her. Do we always try to own or consume those whose traits we covet? Jena Malone plays a make-up artist also hoping to seduce Jesse, but her patience may be thinner. Meanwhile, models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, who excels in a key audition scene) struggle to hide their jealousy - but their reaction is far from petty, as both see the end of their own careers growing close (it isn't mentioned, but for many former models the next step is pornography, and things can easily spiral downwards from there). The stakes are high and this is, like previous Refn works, a story about people willing to do whatever it takes to survive.

The director has been criticised for stealing his imagery from other artists but his collage approach is very much in keeping with the spirit of the age, and whilst The Neon Demon reflects on decades of (mal)practice, it is also intensely modern. This is aided by Cliff Martinez's pulsing electronic score, which draws on musical motifs that are among the few constants in the language of fashion shows. There are actually very few pieces of couture on show, but this fits with the argument that fashion has never been about clothes. This is a film about greatness and those who have it thrust upon them. Its visual indulgence and frequent referencing of other films about celebrity, from Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive, is entirely appropriate given its subject matter - and ultimately, there's nothing to be ashamed of about enjoying the beauty of a film.

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2016
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A young model faces jealous rivals in LA.
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Angus Wolfe Murray **1/2

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Karl Glusman, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola

Year: 2016

Runtime: 117 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France, US, Denmark

Festivals:

Cannes 2016

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