You may not have seen the recent release "The Neon Demon." And after you read my review, you might not want to. Or you just might. Whatever, my review (which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio) follows:
Movie fans owe a lot to the French. The very language we use in film is peppered with French words. The term “cinema,” for example, was coined by the Lumière brothers. “Oeuvre” describes the whole of a filmmaker’s work. “Auteur” refers to an artist – in this case a filmmaker – whose style and practice are distinctive.
Think of Alfred Hitchcock. Or Stanley Kubrick. Think of Jean-Luc Godard or, even, of Steven Spielberg. These are auteurs, filmmakers whose respective work stands out from the cookie-cutter creations put forth by your typical Hollywood director.
In recent years, a number of Danish filmmakers – especially Dogma practitioner Lars Von Trier – have emerged as would-be auteurs. Nicolas Winding Refn is a Danish filmmaker.
Refn also is the guy responsible for “The Neon Demon,” a study in lurid affectation steeped in style that passes for profundity. That style, though, is distinctively Refn – recognizable in the director’s previous films “Bronson,” “Valhalla Rising,” “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” And as the funk musician George Clinton once said, “Style is whatever you want to do, if you can do it with confidence.”
Refn, as “The Neon Demon” clearly shows, is hardly lacking in confidence. The question here concerns coherence.
Based on Refn’s original idea, and on a screenplay co-written by Refn and two women screenwriters – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – “The Neon Demon” tells the story of Jesse, a 16-year-old newcomer (played by Elle Fanning) who’s attempting to break into the Los Angeles modeling scene.
Briefly, she does exactly that, charming most everyone she comes in contact with. From agents to fashion designers, all are captivated by Jesse’s nubile freshness and virginal perfection. The only exceptions are a creepy motel manager (played, bafflingly enough, by Keanu Reeves) and the two models who quickly spot the newcomer as a threat.
The way Jesse’s story plays out could fit nicely into a Lifetime network movie, one of innocence corrupted and all that entails. But Refn, remember, is a stylist. And so “The Neon Demon” is far less about actual story than a series of staged images, all accompanied by a musical score that at times is haunting, at other times merely irritating.
We see Jesse in her first photo session, bathed in blood (spoiler alert: a foreshadowing?), being shot by a nice-guy amateur photographer wearing a killer gaze. We see her being interviewed at a modeling agency (featuring Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” fame), beguiling a designer during an audition, entrancing a menacing photographer during her first professional shoot and bewitching a makeup artist (played by Jena Malone).
We also see scenes that are included purely for shock value. A mountain lion invading Jesse’s motel room. Jesse listening as Reeves’ character apparently rapes her 13-year-old neighbor. A nightclub that seems straight out of Kubrick’s sexual escapade “Eyes Wide Shut.” One character vomiting up an eyeball, another bathing – literally – in blood.
The result of all this could work as metaphor, if it weren’t so obvious and so glaringly pretentious. Which, in whatever language, is just another way of saying Nicolas Winding Refn.