So, should artistic expression have boundaries imposed? And how much responsibility does an audience have, concerning controversial themes and visions? When Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” came roaring out of Cannes in the late spring, its reputation was already locked in. It’s divided even the best critics, and it was booed openly at the Festival. And when I attended a weekday afternoon showing recently, with EIGHT people total in the theater (including me), one woman went scurrying for the exit during a particular nasty scene. Those in the know may be wondering: was it the cannibalism or the necrophilia? Okay, I’ll divulge–it was the latter. Grow up…you are supposed to be an adult. Gorgeous and grotesque, and subtly metaphored, “The Neon Demon” is one of the year’s best films.
The film has a strong narrative line, but honestly it defies the basic plot description that you’ll encounter in reading most mainstream reviews. Let’s just say that teenage Jesse (the absolutely inspired casting, of then 17-year-old Elle Fanning) arrives in Hollywood with dreams of being a super model. Jesse is beautiful, naive, and impossibly youthful. And the older models like Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), along with makeup artist Ruby (a strong Jena Maolne), look upon Jesse with an almost vampiric fascination and jealousy. Residing in a cheap motel that’s run by a malevolent manager named Hank (a smashing Keanu Reeves), Jesse longs to escape her social trappings, and taste the high life. But, for the most part, her innocence remains intact. When that finally transitions…
If this is your first experience with Mr. Refn’s work, your head may spin while watching “The Neon Demon”. Or you’ll bolt for the exit when the real nastiness begins, like the woman in front of me–who seemed more concerned with her i-Phone during the film, anyway. There’s also been quite a bit of chatter, about “The Neon Demon” being banned from opening in England this month. Give me a break. You’d be prepared for NWR’s often brutal style, if you’d taken the time to visit his other work like 2010’s “Valhalla Rising” and 2011’s “Drive”. He’s thoughtful, diverse and intelligent in his approach–but he doesn’t pull any punches. Yay for filmmakers like him. The cadence of his performers reminds one of some of the work of David Cronenberg, and its main story has a taste of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.”. So there’s that. And if you’re a regular reader, you know how I feel about those guys. But Refn is no copycat. And if you aren’t paying attention, you’re likely to miss the important stuff he’s conveying about the objectification of women. It’s also a cutting examination of the West Coast fashion model scene.
Count me in the corner of art being able to have almost limitless freedom. This is simulated sex and violence after all, right? Aren’t movies and television shows about flesh-eating zombies all the rage now? All of a sudden you can’t stomach things when it’s handled in a mature way? It sure would be nice if film goers were more daring in their choices. Possessing a little bravery? Tired of the same-old, same-old? Not put off by some somnambulant acting styles, and unusual cinematic flexing? Well, why not catch “The Neon Demon”. I loved every minute of it.