The Neon Demon

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Opinion seems to be divided on Nicholas Winding Refn’s new film. It got boos and a standing ovation at Cannes and the print reviews are similarly polarised. Some people, like me, thought it was brilliant, others have suggested it is beautiful but vacuous like the models it depicts. This second view is frankly an injustice to the movie and to models. Just because it capitalises on its appearance does not mean there is nothing going on below the surface and if you choose to see it then the intelligence is clearly there. 

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The Neon Demon tells the story of a naturally beautiful and relatively innocent young girl who enters the world of catwalks and photo shoots and has to fight not to get eaten alive. The idea has clearly been explored before but this latest spin is audacious enough to justify its existence. 

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Initially you are grabbed by the visuals which are stunning. If the images rolled out here were presented as a photography exhibition then there would be no question of their depth or true artistic validity. Each frame is precisely composed and at times what you see is simply breathtaking.

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Beyond this though, there is metaphor and symbolism and things can be taken in so many different ways on so many different levels. If you like your art eye catching but open to interpretation then I find it hard to see how you could be disappointed. 

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Accompanying the incredible colour and light show is a perfect electro ambient dub soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, previously of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and again if this were a music video no one would be taking issue with it. Cinema is judged differently though. It has been suggested (often by the book lovers) that movies leave nothing to the imagination but that is only true of some films and if you make the mistake of thinking it is true of the whole medium then you can miss stuff. On this occasion, I think people have missed some really good stuff.

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The performances, while admittedly underplayed, are spot on. Elle Fanning takes the lead, this being the second time she has been cast as the prettiest girl in the land after Maleficent (that kind of thing can go to a girl’s head). There is no denying her face is something to look at, especially the way Winding Refn shoots it, but Fanning has been impressive in everything she has done since Super 8, back when she was still thirteen. This is her first adult role (the film is rated 18 and she’s only just old enough to watch it herself) and she is excellent as always; subtle, nuanced and captivating. Jena Malone is also typically good and I guarantee her’s is a part you will not forget in a hurry. Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote are effective too rounding out the central ensemble as nightmare plastics. 

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Despite the largely female cast this is not an overly feminist film but nor do I think it is sexist. These ladies are not exactly role models but they are taking control. It is true that they are objectified and there is nudity but there is a point to it and the overriding feeling is actually one of nastiness rather than sexiness. No one is going to be titillated by this film. It gets pretty grim and disturbing by the end, hence the high certification.

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The Neon Demon is proper art house cinema but the accusations of it being style over substance are unfounded. The way it differs from films like The Assassin and Winding Refn’s own Only God Forgives which were lauded and criticised in the same way is that it is the camera moving slowly not the actors. This movie does not drag in the same way those films sometimes did. Instead it is a riveting, intriguing study of beauty, psychology, superficiality and jealousy and possibly even metamorphosis and the paranormal but that will depend on how you read it. Either way it’s a masterpiece.

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