Mix the hyper-stylized dread of horror movies like The Shining or Beyond the Black Rainbow with the cut-throat world of fashion a la America's Next Top Model and what do you get? The Neon Demon!
The newest film from controversial visionary auteur Nicholas Winding Refn (best known as the director of Drive), The Neon Demon tells the story of an impossibly gorgeous young model (played by teenage Elle Fanning) who finds herself the target of a nefarious and savage crew of industry insiders who covet her beauty. Featuring ultra-violent sexual scenarios aplenty, audiences were audibly gasping and groaning during a handful of scenes at the film's debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night.
Although Refn claimed that the movie is an extended meditation on the nature of Beauty (in an almost existential sense), the film skewers the fashion world's immense vapidity and predatory nature. Emphasizing this is the slow-paced cinematography, crystalline soundtrack, and terrifyingly chic costume design, which are all so precise and exquisitely stylish that the film sometimes feels closer to a moving look book than an actual narrative.
At BAM last night, however, participants in the Q&A were perhaps less concerned with the visuals of the film and more interested in the politics. One audience member blatantly accused Refn of racism for his decision to cast exclusively young, skinny, white ladies as his paradigms of beauty. Refn was given the opportunity to reply, but offered limply that he simply picked his stars based on ability, and who he thought would be best for each role. (Note: Refn had an easy out here. He could have responded that the film's whiteness reflects the whiteness of the fashion industry itself.) He was similarly accused of sexism after telling the audience that he chose a female director of photography (Natasha Braier, who should receive endless praise for her nightmarishly opulent cinematographic sensibilities) largely because she was the cheapest available option, although he later stated that she was by far the best thing that could have happened for the movie.
The film had been previously screened at Cannes, where it received an overwhelmingly negative reaction. This is the second of Refn's movies in a row to be boo'ed at the French festival. Meanwhile reviews of Neon Demon are a mixed bag, with the New York Times patently trashing the work: "'The Neon Demon' is hot garbage that dares you to call it offensive. In addition, it’s offensive," said writer Glenn Kenny. Variety, however, disagreed, saying: "Beauty mingles with mangled flesh ... Every scene, every shot, every line of dialogue, every pause is so hypnotically composed, so luxuriously overdeliberate, that the audience can’t help but assume that Refn knows exactly what he’s doing — that he’s setting us up for the kill," wrote Owen Gleiberman.
The Neon Demon is officially out in theaters in the US today.