There is always one film in the Cannes Film Festival main competition that shocks both press and audiences. Usually it divides cinephiles ; they either love it or hate it with a passion. During Cannes 2016, that film was “The Neon Demon” by Danish Director Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Elle Fanning as Jesse, a 16 year old aspiring model trying to make it in L.A as a top model.
It is a terrific but terrifying view on the fashion world where innocent young girls are sold as meat dolls. It was back in Cannes 2011 that Nicolas Winding became an overnight success with his film “Drive”, that film elevated the director to a first class filmmaker alongside Terence Malick, Aki Kaurismaki or Pedro Almodovar who that year were also on the run up for best director that Mr Winding won.
In “The Neon Demon” the innocence and natural beauty of Jesse are soon her biggest assets in the fashion world of a city where everyone seems to be falling for her beauty charms. This will come at a price as her fellow models start resenting her for being prettier and younger than they are. Their jealousy is such that they soon decide to get rid of her. When the artistic director of Cannes, Thierry Fremaux, introduced the official selection of the festival , he said that “The Neon Demon” was a horror film about cannibalism amongst top models. Everyone at the time thought that the models were going to eat each other up. What nobody actually thought is that he was being literal.One of the key scenes of the film is a cannibalism scene as well as a necrofilia one where a lesbian make-up artist abuses the body of a dead woman. I had to turn my eyes away from the screen during those moments as it all became a bit too overwhelming. The film is ultimately a critique of the modeling world whose jealous inhabitants can’t wait to chew each other up and spit each other out in the hope they can steal their beauty.
Visually the film is super stylish thanks to Natasha Braier’s lustrous cinematography. A mixture of Brian de Palma, Dario Argento, or fashion films and the director’s undeniable visual panache.I also loved the electronic music of Cliff Martinez as it reflects the evolution of Jesse’s character, from a naive sweet natured girl to someone evil aware of the fascination her beauty has on others. The film is more message than narrative hence the stylish photography which just as the fashion world itself, is all about style over substance.The combination of sound, visuals and design is what kept me mesmerised in this film.
From a female perspective and as a filmmaker, I was thinking what motivated the director to make such a film with so much depravity. I don’t think a woman director could have directed a film like this. We have a kinder ,more compassionate view on our female characters even if they are awful women whose vision in life is as short term and short lived as their wrinkle free faces. It was sometimes tough to see what these girls go through, my maternal instinct kicked in and as Jesse turned more and more evil I kept justifying her. If her mum was alive she would be living with her in L.A , going to castings with her and kicking ass at every self inflated masculine ego who takes advantage of young girls. It was also hard to swallow the fact that women do hate women sometimes,or are not friendly out of friendship but out of interest. Jesse is first noticed by makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), but her interest is clearly as much personal as it is professional. The UK premiere of the film took place at Picture House Central, my new favourite venue. Even though it is right in the West End, the venue has an European cinema sort of feeling and I felt like I could go there with my laptop to write for a few hours and feel inspired.
The screening room was big, it had comfy seats and I could switch off even if surrounded by people. Elle Fanning and the director introduced the film and even though the world they portrait in their movie is cold, ruthless and banal.These two seem down to earth, relaxed people so it was easy to warm to them .
It was a cold night in London despite being in the height of spring but the cinema looked pretty and glamorous, overall a fantastic cinema night. Thanks a lot to Icon distribution and the film PR for inviting me to the premiere. The Neon Demon goes on general release in the UK on July 8th.
If you want to read about my time at the Cannes Film Festival click here: