The Neon Demon (2 stars)

The Neon Demon

Cannes 2016: Outrageously stylish but ultimately risible horror from Nicolas Winding Refn

Described by director Nicolas Winding Refn as a genre-subverting attempt to ‘make a horror film without the horror,’ The Neon Demon is a supremely stylish but exceedingly silly film; a bright, shiny, eye-catching bauble with a vapid centre. There are echoes of David Lynch, Dario Argento, Gaspar Noé and Paul Verhoeven, along with the novels of Jacqueline Susann, in a flashy satire of the cult of beauty that transitions into a gruesome, distasteful B-movie. The press derision at the first Cannes screening was deafening.

Elle Fanning stars as wide-eyed teenager Jesse, an aspiring model who arrives in Los Angeles. Her youth and natural beauty turns heads, secures her work and earns her the envy of the older models. One veteran wryly notes, ‘Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat.’

Fanning slightly overplays the naive, simpering, deer-in-the-headlights appeal of Jesse, making you wonder if any 16-year-old is that innocent in the 21st century. It is an approach that wins her the admiration of designers and photographers, and the friendship of enigmatic make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone). As Jesse makes a meteoric rise within the modelling business, she fuels the jealousy of her rivals who react in the most vicious manner.

The Neon Demon often looks as stunning as a magazine shoot or an ultra expensive fragrance commercial. The screen is drenched in colour and there is almost something mathematical or architectural about the way Refn uses angles, lines, shapes and space. The throbbing, electronic soundtrack and pulsating lights create a trance-like state as if Jesse is a modern-day Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, the satirical elements come off as laughably shallow and the descent into necrophiliac sex and eye-popping gore is entirely risible, as Refn seems determined to prove this is a dog-eat-dog business in the most literal way.

Screening as part of Cannes 2016. General release from Fri 8 Jul.

The Neon Demon

  • 2 stars
  • 2016
  • France, US, Denmark
  • 1h 58min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Cast: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote
  • UK release: 8 July 2016

Jesse (Fanning) is an aspiring model who arrives in Los Angeles and turns heads with her youth and beauty, fuelling the vicious jealousy of her rivals. Stylish and gory but exceedingly silly B-movie, with laughably shallow satiric elements and Fanning overplaying Jesse's implausible naivety.