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“Are you food or are you sex?” the Los Angeles model asks the young fashion-world wannabe (Elle Fanning) near the start of The Neon Demon. It’s the story’s ice breaker; expect crash and carnage soon. We have been here before in Nicolas Winding Refn’s work. Controlled delirium moving in on surreal derangement. This Danish director made Pusher, Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives. In a typical Refn movie there will be blood, death, violence, torture, madness and God, though not necessarily in that order.
Even by Refn’s standard, the new film takes the blood pudding. It’s like a Jacqueline Susann novel put through a meat grinder. Teenager Elle comes to LA, hoping for a career in the city of fleshpots and crackpots. But beware what you dream of. “Friends” she soon meets include Sapphic makeup artist Jena Malone, seedy motelier Keanu Reeves (making you think of the Bates Motel in a whole new upscale light) and two leggy predator-bimbos who like to, let’s say, “do stuff” to the things they love.
Sex, sadism; and, yes, cannibalism. In a painterly, even dazzling way, Refn splurges it across the screen. He’s the Jacques-Louis David of shocking spectacle. The movie is either a sick dark joke or a multicoloured hoot, depending on your opinion. The only certainty: when in doubt Refn will have a character vomit up an eyeball. Or for bored variety he may try something cool and pre-Raphaelitish like the scene of Jena Malone lying topless in a shallow grave surrounded by roses. (Why?) Or — back to enormity — he will stage an extended love scene in a morgue between a major character and a naked corpse.
I don’t mind; I’m an amoral film critic. I carry in my mind only Jean Cocteau’s dictum, that the thing that matters in cinema is “Etonnez-nous!” But I begin to suspect there are unseen shallows in Refn’s cinema for all its high-res sensationalism; not to say a San Andreas Fault of molten dramatic voids lying beneath this Los Angeles of larky surfeit.