from cannes: here’s why ‘the neon demon’ is a twisted, delicious masterwork

I’m writing this review topless at the foot of my bed. It’s nearly one in the morning and I’ve been up since six. I’ll be up at six again tomorrow.

There’s a reason for this semi-inappropriate, rushed introduction to my review of Nicolas Winding-Refn’s glorious The Neon Demon: because it’s a film we have to talk about, and now is the best time for that.

Jesse is a tentative, Georgia-born girl who finds herself in LA, desperate to find her place in the city’s proudly plastic and ostentatious modelling world. For a while, all she can bring herself to wear is a pair of scuffed, faded black converse and unflattering summer dresses. That is, until, the seismic shift occurs. Swiftly discovered by an agency who snaps her up without question, the shy girl from Georgia is now strutting down catwalks in a high-end fashion show. From what we can see, nobody’s watching apart from Winding-Refn off camera, bathing her in glitter and lurid, hypnotic strobe lights.

From that point onwards, Jesse knows of her beauty. She’s the envy of her peers who’ve been nipped and tucked to their heart’s content, her pearlescent skin now doused in an omnipresent gold lustre, her naïvety washed away by the sobering city of LA. Everybody wants to be her, and in this cutthroat industry there’s only one way to achieve that distant dream.

It’s highly likely that you may utterly despise this film. It’s perverted and self-indulgent; a polarising Winding-Refn film that doesn’t even try and dabble in subtleties. The Neon Demon moves like a slick wild cat sinking its teeth into your jugular, refusing to let go until you’re a chewed up corpse and no more. That’s even a reference the director makes himself, as an untarnished Jesse returns home to her rundown motel room, confronted by a beast that epitomises what will soon destroy her.

A shimmering Elle Fanning plays Jesse, the object of the camera’s affection. Her soft eyes swiftly become an intimidating stare, a moment that almost signifies the maturation of a young actress into one of the impressive, adult kind. Winding-Refn’s intensely built environments, be they the fetish-inspired inky black rooms of a fashion studio or the hollowed out remnants of a Chateau Marmont pool act as a playground for his actors. Jena Malone delivers the most unsettling performance of her career as Ruby, a make-up artist who seems pleasant on the surface, but has an unsatisfied craving for Jesse’s untouched flesh. It’s an obsession that leads on to Cannes Film Festival’s only gross out, post-mortem love scene that involves a perfectly designed spit in the mouth that will send the fainthearted heading for the door.

Outside of the fashion world, we see Keanu Reeves as the paedophilic owner of Jesse’s Pasadena motel. Seldomly showing face in this female-dominated film, when he does he does everything to degrade them. Despite that, he also acts as the film’s reality instigator, referring to the runaways and high school drop outs that occupy the rooms of his business as ‘lolitas’. It seems crass at the time, but what he’s doing is highlighting the perversion of these obsessive girls as well as his own.

A modern art piece as much as it is a tongue-in-cheek, cannibal supermodel film, Natasha Braier and Norman Nisbet (cinematographer and colourist respectively) more than deserve the credit for this scintillating film’s indelible beauty. The director’s obscure, ‘fashion film’ inspired vision is fully realised, and we descend into The Neon Demon like it’s some sort of horror instead of left field, arthouse fodder. Electronic music producer Cliff Martinez delivers his best work to date too, channeling sonic influencers like Fever Ray’s cacophonic keys with a powerful, runway aesthetic.

That score alone is enough to take your breath away. Everything else just adds to it. The Neon Demon is Nicolas Winding-Refn’s most evasive and flagrant work yet. It also happens to be a fucking masterpiece.



The Neon Demon played In Competition at the 69th Festival de Cannes. It has its UK release on July 8th.