Danish director Winding Refn started off on the very mean streets of his home country with the ‘Pusher’ trilogy and ‘Bleeder’. Making Copenhagen into a Copenhell these violent and gritty thrillers were not without a sense of humour and pitted a body strewn tableaux of drugs and the criminal underbelly of the country in an incredibly deadbeat scenario. On the strength of these he quickly moved into the international arena with a film about notorious prison inmate ‘Bronson’, a film that also for me unfortunately turned a simple story into one that was far too pretentiously shot and surreal for its own good. Moving forward from the historic Viking saga ‘Valhalla Rising’ it was his next couple of films that probably got him the most attention with Ryan Gosling proving his muse in the slow and brooding noir etched ‘Drive’ and the Thai gangster kickboxing ultra-violence of ‘Only God Forgives.’ There’s no shortage of rumours about what he has planned in the future including producing a love it or loathe it remake of Michael Reeves classic 1968 film Witchfinder General. At the moment and currently getting bums on seats in the local multiplex is his latest directorial feature ‘The Neon Demon.’
Having seen all his other films I went into this expecting a drawn out, richly shot explosion of garish technicolor and bloodshed and that is pretty much what we get. A young aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in L.A. in a fashion that could be compared to Dorothy in the Wizard Of Oz. She has no parents and seemingly no history to speak of and is one of thousands of innocent and out of their depth girls looking for a big break. After taking some dramatic test shots with amateur photographer and would be suitor Dean (Karl Glusman) she does the impossible and catches attention of a top modelling agency. She also strikes up a friendship with make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to two forthright and bitchy models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). As things develop Jesse is thrust into the limelight as she finds favour with top photographers and fashion designers and rapidly rises to the top in a once in a lifetime ascent. Naturally this leads to all manner of resentment from others within the fashion world and the claws well and truly come out. Throw into the mix all manner of sleazy characters such as Hank the proprietor of the motel that Jesse is staying at played by Keanu Reeves and we have an engrossing film which really draws you in before literally spitting you right out.
There are plenty of influences that I found here, some of them incredibly subtle and even hidden and others more obvious. I envisioned an all-night film session based around this which starts out with Dario Argento’s Suspiria (thematically in some sense and certainly for some of the garish set-ups) followed by Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ and David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps To The Stars.’ You could probably throw in Brian De Palma’s Carrie as a first feature if you really wanted and there are also similarities lurking from the fertile minds of David Lynch and Gaspar Noé. In one scene where Elle is thrown into leading part in a fashion show (and it’s not a scene that anyone with epilepsy should attempt viewing), triangular symbolism struck as a nod to the mystic world of Alejandro Jodorowsky and as he appears as a thank you on the end credits of ‘Only God Forgives’, which I had seen again the night before, that is probably no surprise.
I would not be surprised if this is a film that does not get its fair share of walk out’s, its intelligent and contentious movie making and features some taboos that you will discover for yourself on watching. Winding Refn has really come into his own here and I found this a riveting and hallucinatory viewing experience and one that is no doubt partly true to life about the profession it so vibrantly captures. EBM, techno and futuristic synthesized soundscapes richly capture the mood and emotions of the stylistic cinematography as an audio accompaniment and the acting is excellent throughout. Apparently this was the second of the director’s films to receive jeers and boos at the press showing at Cannes Film Festival which is proof that this is a film that’s bound to divide opinion. Unless you are lucky enough to have a warped and twisted partner you are no doubt better off going to see GhosTrek on date night but if you are wanting an imaginative and vibrant ride ‘The Neon Demon’ may well end up haunting your dreams.