Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 25, 2016 12:34 pm 
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Driven to extremes

The trouble with Nicolas Winding Refn is also what has gained him fame, that he tends to carry things a bit too far. His films are powerful and intense but risk seeming the work of a clever, malevolent child. The Neon Demon is about young female models in Los Angeles. Yes, such people do tend to put excessive emphasis on youth and beauty. But when an invincible new competitor comes along, must they literally eat her alive? I was reminded of the Belgian couple Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's gorgeous, sadistic art films, which have owed something to Italian Dario Argento-style slasher-horror "giallo." But their work is exclusively the stuff of film festivals, where it sits more comfortably. Refn gets featured at Cannes, where Demon debuted, and then gets commercial distribution, where recently he has run into trouble. Unlike Cattet and Forzani, who crank up "giallo" to art-film remoteness, Refn seems to be simply out to shock, and he editorializes in obvious, morally dishonest ways. He too obviously relishes as he condemns. But certainly he must be an auteur, if the number of times "Nicolas Winding Refn" and "NWR" appear in the introduction and conclusion is any sign of it.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a blonde sixteen-year-old from Georgia who comes to L.A. to be a model and is lusted after by Ruby, a lesbian makeup artist (Jena Malone), coached by an approving agent (Christina Hendricks) to say she's nineteen,drooled over by a fancy photographer (Desmond Harrington) and made the signature of his new show by an imporrant fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola), cordially loathed by two older models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), and protecte, until he's driven away, by Dean, a nice young man and would-be boyfriend (Karl Glusman), who, inexplicably, is the one photographing Jessie at the outset for her portfolio as a beautiful, bloody corpse. That opening image defines the whole movie, both its celebration of sadism and its putting looks before plausiblity.

One can react to The Neon Demon in a wide range of ways, as shown by reviews that range from admiring to repulsed. First of all, apart from the exquisite cinematography, most of the casting works very well, starting with Elle Fanning, who morphs with great subtlety from sweet and innocent, perfectly beautiful and young to a cold-hearted hardened bitch. Karl Glusman is an interesting new actor, conventional on the outside, mysterious and different underneath, giving innocent niceness a haunting sexual undertone. (See him imitate Christopher Walken here - hilarious.) Everyone else is just about right. Even Keanu Reeves, against type as Hank, a brutish, sexually predatory motel manager, has more conviction than usual. The prizewinning, self-consciously genre electronic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez is witty and atmospheric. Natasha Braier's work as dp is stellar.

On the other hand, how much smarmy lust, hateful jealousy, cannibalism, slashing, and lesbian necrophilia can you take? And Refn is too obsessed with eye candy and titillation to notice the gaps and longeurs in his action. As I mentioned, the man carries things too far.

The real star of the show is Jesse's Pasadena motel room, whose palm-frond-print wallpaper is repeated in the long curtains, and whose elegantly languid decay elevates sleaze to the level of a World of Interiors center spread. It is this space that is suddenly invaded by a wild bobcat, which is to be Jesse's metaphor, though she's also charged for the damage by Hank. Dean pays Hank off for this. Why? When Jesse realizes she's the new queen bee, she ditches him. It's fascinating in the movie to observe how innocence, which dominates the early scenes, or seems to, gets sucked away. But The Neon Demon winds up making one feel depressed, and that's not in my experience the feeling a really good movie, however sad or grim, should ever leave one with. NWR has sucked away my dream of a good movie.

The Neon Demon, 117 mins., debuted at Cannes in May. French release 8 June, overall good reviews (AlloCiné press ratng 3.5). It opened in US theaters 24 June 2016.

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