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The director of Drive heads back to L.A. for a blunt message movie

Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon
Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon

Now in its home stretch, Cannes 2016 seems determined to go out with a bang. The last two films I’ve seen have been met not just with boos but also with mocking laughter and angry curses. At the end of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (Grade: C+), a dedication appears: “For Liv” (Winding Refn’s wife, Liv Corfixen). At my screening, this prompted, from the balcony, a loud cry of “Fuck you, Liv!” I admit to laughing, but the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me: A man makes a film decrying insane attitudes toward women, yet it’s a woman who winds up taking the heat.

The Neon Demon wastes zero time in linking female beauty and violence, opening with a tableau of a 16-year-old girl, Jesse (Elle Fanning), reclining on a couch as blood drips from her neck and collects in a bright-red pool on the floor. This turns out to be a photo shoot—Jesse has newly arrived in Los Angeles with hopes of becoming a model. She’s quickly befriended by makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces her to fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), both of whom treat Jesse more or less the way the Heathers treated Martha Dumptruck. (I guess Ruby would be the Veronica in this analogy.) Before long, Jesse is being celebrated all over town as the new It Girl, effortlessly achieving what Gigi and Sarah have spent small fortunes trying to buy via plastic surgery. Everybody who encounters Jesse wants a piece of her, but nobody wants pieces of her quite so literally as do other women, for whom she represents an ideal that’s otherwise unobtainable.

Winding Refn shoves this idea down the viewer’s throat like Mick Jagger’s knife at the end of “Midnight Rambler”—an act very nearly made literal here in a cameo by Keanu Reeves playing a scuzzy motel manager who sneaks into Jesse’s room in the middle of the night. For a while, The Neon Demon gets by on its seductive sheen and Fanning’s expressive tremulousness. The movie throbs and pulsates, awash in Day-Glo hues (Winding Refn is color-blind, so his preferred palette is all primary, no pastel), and Jesse’s rapid rise proceeds with a mesmerizing dream logic, incorporating odd visions and elisions. The movie ultimately doesn’t have a narrative so much as it has a Message, and while Winding Refn doesn’t actually go so far as to spell that Message out in big neon letters, he might as well have. Virtually every moment of the film is dedicated to underlining society’s oppressive female beauty standards, bluntly enough to make the Grand Guignol climax (which is more like an epilogue, really—the true horror happens off screen) feel redundant. Conceptually bracing and formally daring, The Neon Demon lacks only a text to put the “sub” in its ostensible subtext.

Sean Penn’s execrable The Last Face (Grade: D), on the other hand, lacks good sense—so much so that the audience at its premiere started openly laughing at it less than 30 seconds after it began. (It’s hard to explain why, but it involves incredibly pompous timing in the opening chyron.) This film was almost certainly going to take a certain amount of heat no matter what, simply because it features two movie stars—Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem—play-acting a love affair amidst the bloody chaos of the Second Liberian Civil War. Whatever your nightmare vision of that scenario might be, The Last Face is even more hilariously tone-deaf. Structurally, the film is a disaster, using a flashback structure that only serves to make dying Africans look like impediments to the necessary heart-to-heart between Dr. Miguel Leon (Bardem) and Dr. Wren Petersen (Theron), who runs the movie’s version of Doctors Without Borders. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because I reviewed a somewhat similar film, A Perfect Day, earlier this year. If you must see one of them, see that one.) Erin Dignam’s screenplay is so stilted and clunky that the actors (supporting roles are played by Jared Harris, Jean Reno, and Blue Is The Warmest Color’s Adèle Exarchopoulos) try to rescue it by inserting dramatic pauses, which only inspired more mocking laughter in the Palais. When that fails, Penn amps things up by swirling his camera around and around Wren and Miguel as they yell at each other. Even when The Last Face briefly manages to foreground its historical nightmare and achieve some real tension, the moment is ruined by Wren bellowing “What’s wrong with you people?”—a sentence that I feel confident has never actually been uttered by someone who’s just watched a little boy commit suicide rather than be forced to kill his father. By the time she wraps things up with a sententious speech about how dreams are more important than oxygen, both have been completely sucked out of the theater.

By request (in earlier comments), I’ll wrap this penultimate dispatch up with quick thoughts on a few other films I’ve seen and tweeted about but haven’t yet mentioned here. Marco Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams (Grade: C+), which was rumored for Competition but wound up as the opener for the Director’s Fortnight (technically a separate festival down the Croisette, but it’s treated as a Cannes sidebar), leaps about in time to tell the story of a man whose entire life is defined by the loss of his mother when he was 9 years old. It feels like three or four completely different movies, but each has its merits; the main problem is that Bérénice Bejo, who shows up late in the going as the protagonist’s lover, makes the lead actor look even less charismatic by comparison. Rithy Panh’s Exile (Grade: B) serves as a companion piece to his terrific documentary The Missing Picture, focusing on the years in which Panh was forced to leave his native Cambodia for France. The previous film’s clay figurines have been replaced by a series of tableaux in which an actor representing Panh inhabits a room that changes appearance with the passing of time, giving Exile the feel of an installation, which is ultimately less effective than The Missing Picture’s more concrete abstraction. While Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda has been “demoted” to Un Certain Regard this year (after playing in Competition last year with Our Little Sister, soon to open commercially in the U.S.), I quite enjoyed his very low-key After The Storm (Grade: B), which echoes 2008’s Still Walking in its gentle, wry wisdom. It even uses some of the same actors, with Hiroshi Abe again playing Kirin Kiki’s adult son; this time, it’s the relationship with Abe’s character, an inveterate fuck-up, and his own young son (Taiyo Yoshizawa), that’s front and center. None of the above is particularly exciting (which is why I’ve waited until now to write about it), but After The Storm, in particular, is worth keeping an eye out for down the road, especially for Still Walking fans.

Tomorrow: Usually, I devote my final dispatch to speculation about what films and performances might win awards on Sunday along with my own choices for who should win them. This year, though, there are still two major Competition films yet to screen: Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman. Still, I’ll see if I can find room for some awards talk as well.