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Review: The Neon Demon- “Nicolas Winding Refn, an auteur in the making”

16 year old Jessie (Elle Fanning) is an aspiring model in the unforgiving and competitive modelling world of Los Angeles. Although her only experience comes from a few photoshoots with a small-time photographer (Karl Glusman), her enchanting beauty is quickly noticed by makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and two big-time models past their prime, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). After Jessie gets signed by the biggest modelling agency in LA, and becomes a prestigious photographer’s visual obsession, envy starts consuming Gigi and Sarah, who see the young, innocent and naturally beautiful model as their doom. Jessie gets caught up in, and corrupted by, a hostile and treacherous world that claims “True beauty is the highest currency there is.”

The Neon Demon is a film unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, except for other Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. The Danish auteur’s visual style, character and world creation, and his ultra-graphic depiction of violence is on full display in one of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival’s most controversial and talked-about films. However, unlike any of his other previous films, NWR uses a female protagonist and female-driven plot, to create a disturbing visual experience that explores the world of modelling; an industry that’s increasingly powerful and relevant in a time when the twisted and unrealistic standards of beauty created by the media should be revisited and criticized.

The somewhat dystopic world that NWR creates in The Neon Demon is quite astonishing, and it’s in no small part due to his use of lighting and colour, a skill that we’ve seen time and time again shown by him. The lighting is very artificial, coupled with an extremely noteworthy makeup and set design, the film becomes a depiction of an artificial world, like a massive set, with a neo-noir tone, playing with shadows, colours and silhouettes to make the film look very daring and mysterious. Coupled with a dreamy, electronic, soundtrack, we become enchanted by the surreal and unsettling atmosphere that the director creates. With Winding Refn, of course, such an intense visual experience shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, we should expect nothing less of him.

However, even though there’s much to praise about NWR’s style and his undeniable talent as a filmmaker, as the film entered its third act and the narrative was drawing to a close, I found myself thinking the same thing I thought in Only God Forgives (and although I’m ashamed to confess, I even felt that in Bronson); what is all this violence doing for the film’s narrative progression? NWR’s film is clearly a criticism of the beauty industries, particularly the modelling industry, and the world that is created around these. He makes his point, and he makes it clear. His view of the modelling world as a shallow, mindless game where girls are judged for how well they can wear their physical traits, is splattered across the film, of course, it makes the film what it is. “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, no real talent” says Jessie. And to be honest, the film works on almost every level; an innocent girl, corrupted by the vain nature of this new world and all the attention that comes with it, turned into a narcissist egocentric. But again, the problem comes when NWR seems to replace the complex symbolisms and smart dialogues, with over-the-top gore and violence, to prove a point that had he made clear a while before. I understand that this is all part of Winding Refn’s signature as an auteur, and I wouldn’t go into one of his films not expecting violence, but like some of NWR’s influences before him (Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino), violence and gore will always be entertaining, even amusing, so long as it contributes in any way to the film’s narrative progression or its artistic display.

But enough about NWR, as there is a lot to praise in the performances seen on screen. Like Ryan Gosling in Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), the film is very much centered on the main character, in this case, it’s the “Elle Fanning Show.” Reportedly, Fanning was required to pose with her eyes open on set for so long against the bright artificial lights, that her contact lenses melted into her eyes (as much as it may sound like something that would happen in an NWR film, actually happened on set.) This goes to show the commitment that the young star gave in this film. Her expressions are captivating, and her on screen confidence is quite remarkable. Another noteworthy performance is the ever-improving Jena Malone, who embodies a make-up-artist that befriends Jessie and becomes obsessed with her, which leads her to perform some of the most disturbing scenes in cinemas in a long time.

The Neon Demon is definitely a worthwhile experience. Visually, its stunning, props to cinematographer Natasha Braier and an absolutely enchanting performance by Elle Fanning. It stumbles, and although it’s definitely not for everyone, nor is it an easy viewing, for the most part, the film is captivating and thought-provoking. It’s a very good film, but it’s not the best work that Nicolas Winding Refn has delivered (that honor goes to Drive, in my opinion). If anything, the film is artistic, quite experimental, and continues to solidify the director as one of the most recognizable auteurs in present-day cinema.

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