What the hell are we to make of Nicolas Winding Refn?
Is he a poet, a provocateur, a poser? An artist who expertly plays with genre, a stylish sickie besotted of his own excesses or an auteur who belongs in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where his film “The Neon Demon” had its first press screening on Thursday night?
“The Neon Demon” suggests that he’s all of the above, and more. Wildly extravagant, impossibly stylish and excessively blood-drenched, it’s the second horror movie to screen in Cannes’ main competition this week, after Olivier Assayas‘ far more cerebral puzzle, “Personal Shopper.”
And like “Personal Shopper,” Refn’s film brought out the boo birds on Thursday, along with some viewers who couldn’t limit themselves to booing and actually shouted abuse at the screen.
I’ve seen Cannes films get hostile receptions in the past, but I can’t remember ever hearing a loud “f— it!” resounding through the Salle Debussy at the end of a film.
Oh, and other people applauded.
I expect Refn wouldn’t want it any other way.
I mean, “The Neon Demon” finds entertaining new frontiers in stylishly lurid excess: If the supermodel knife fight doesn’t do it for you, maybe the necrophilia masturbation scene will.
The story, such as it is, deals with a young innocent (or so we think) in the big bad city. Elle Fanning‘s Jesse comes to Los Angeles and instantly takes the fashion world by storm, booking all the best jobs and leaving a trail of embittered supermodels on the fatally high side of 20 in her wake.
“I can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t write,” says the fresh-faced ingénue, who might be a bit more worldly than she lets on. “But I’m pretty, and I can make a lot of money off pretty.”
But to do so she’ll have to navigate a town of predators, who include, in no particular order: the modeling agent who tells her to lie about her age (Christina Hendricks); the hot photographer who immediately calls for a closed set and asks her to get naked (Desmond Harrington); the other supermodels who, Jesse points out, undergo plastic surgery “to look like a second-rate version of me” (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee); the mountain lion who somehow ends up in her grimy motel room in the San Fernando Valley (casting information unknown); the helpful makeup artist who moonlights down at the morgue (Jena Malone); and the motel manager who might be a murderer and is definitely a pimp (Keanu Reeves).
Refn composes every shot for maximum drama, then lingers on them as long as humanly possible. His characters speak so slowly that you could fit entire speeches from Xavier Dolan‘s talky “It’s Only the End of the World” in the pregnant pauses in “The Neon Demon.”
For more than an hour, this is the slowest and most stylish fever dream ever; on the evidence of this and the Cannes entry “Julieta,” Refn and Pedro Almodóvar could have a long and fruitful conversation about nothing but the color red.
And then the red gets redder and the film gets bloodier and the whole mess reaches almost sublime levels of utter silliness and questionable taste.
But who goes to a Refn movie for good taste? (Although his last film, “Only God Forgives,” went so far overboard as to be almost repellent.) You could say that the director never knows when to stop — but it’s probably more accurate to say that he knows exactly when to stop, but doesn’t give a damn.
“The Neon Demon” is worthy of those boos and that abuse, and you can’t take it seriously for a second. But it’s also ridiculously, gloriously, stupidly entertaining, if you’re in the right mood.
And hey, I know that Amazon’s other competition entries, Jim Jarmusch‘s “Paterson” and Park Chan-wook‘s “The Handmaiden,” are much better movies. But I bet it’ll be a lot easier for the company to actually get people to watch this one.