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Elle Fanning’s not dead, merely posing for a photo shoot in The Neon Demon.

Maybe you heard that Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon caused boos and walkouts at Cannes. Sometimes it seems like every movie does that, but this one was so controversial that The Daily Mail called for it to be banned in the U.K. That’s not so surprising; Refn’s mix of ornate visuals, pregnant pauses, and stomach-churning violence tends to polarize viewers, casting that peculiar spell where you simply can’t look away from his films, as much as you might want to. I regard The Neon Demon as a fascinating failure, but if you’re on this crazed Danish filmmaker’s wavelength, you won’t want to miss it.

Our heroine is Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old virginal orphan from Georgia who has just moved to L.A. to get modeling work. A makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) helps her sign with an agency, but when Jesse starts beating out older, more established models for high-profile jobs, she finds that they’re willing to commit murder and worse to maintain their level of success.

This has been called Refn’s first horror film, but properly understood, all his movies are horror films. The thing has a neat shock at Jesse’s seedy Pasadena motel room, where she, the motel manager (Keanu Reeves in a strange cameo), and his right-hand guy (Charles Baker) all find an unwanted visitor there. Far more of the scares come from the female body being violated — there’s a moment of pure terror during a photo shoot when the photographer (Desmond Harrington) sends everyone else out of the studio, has Jesse strip naked, and then turns out all the lights. The gory final sequence is the apogee of the movie’s body horror, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the heyday of David Cronenberg.

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Someone watches the carnage and curls her lip as if she’d smelled someone’s fart rather than watching them effectively commit seppuku. That gag-worthy gag helps this rank as Refn’s funniest movie to date, and co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham have fun with the SoCal heartlessness — one designer (Alessandro Nivola) praises Jesse as “a diamond in a sea of glass” in front of a bunch of other models who can hear him just fine. Much of the film takes place in the downmarket L.A. recognizable from Refn’s Drive, while the parts in the fashion world are neon-lit, glitter-dusted theatrical tableaux like in his earlier works such as Bronson. The director conjures a number of delicately poised shots like one of a room full of models wearing underwear and high heels sitting in folding chairs and looking bored or one of Jesse perched on a diving board above an empty pool, looking like she’s hovering in midair.

For all its perverse glitz, this thing doesn’t have enough to stick. It isn’t characterized sharply enough to be a tragedy, it isn’t comprehensive enough to work as an anthology of female fears of the body being devoured by millions of eyes, and it doesn’t offer a trenchant enough critique of society’s impossible standards of youth and beauty. (For that last part, I get more out of Amy Schumer’s comedy sketches.) The notion that Jesse is a threat to the other models simply because she’s not insecure about her looks is an interesting idea that doesn’t get nearly enough play. I have no earthly idea what Ruby’s whole subplot is about, either. As twisted as everyone else in the movie underneath her friendly exterior, Ruby takes an unlikely side job making up corpses at a mortuary, and it seems like a form of penance at first, only to give way to something sinister and so nonsensical that it feels like it was included for pure shock value. We’re left with the statement that L.A. is a soulless place that preys on attractive young women, hardly an original insight.

The Neon Demon is the most woman-centric film Refn has ever done, so if that’s the spur you need to enter his baroque world of sin, strobe lights, and mutilated body parts, here you go. It’s highly irregular that such an unusual and graphic film gets a wide release, especially during a weekend when big-ticket blockbusters are also opening, but Refn’s style is worth sampling even though it feels in search of a subject.

[box_info]The Neon Demon
Starring Elle Fanning and Jena Malone. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham. Rated R.[/box_info]

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