Heading into its first screenings Thursday night, Nicolas Winding Refn’s fashion industry thriller, Neon Demon, was one of the great mysteries of Cannes 2016. After the screenings, I can attest that it is…one of the great mysteries of Cannes 2016. The first critics’ screening was met with jeering and catcalls to the screen (including some clown yelling, when a dedication to Winding Refn’s wife appeared onscreen, “Fuck you, Liv!”). None of that is necessarily a sign of failure. Winding Refn seems to feed on others’ derision and outrage, and I’m pretty sure he’d have been disappointed if a few hadn’t booed.
When I say the film is “mysterious,” I don’t mean to suggest that Neon Demon’s intentions or meaning are unclear. If anything, it’s quite blunt — a loud, aestheticized, in-your-face meditation on beauty and consumption. What’s unclear is what we’re supposed to make of it. It’s got a story, but just barely. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year-old model from Georgia, newly arrived in Los Angeles, whose untouched and unfathomable beauty is immediately noticed by all around her — particularly by Ruby (Jena Malone), a helpful but vaguely predatory makeup artist who latches on to the young girl. Even the other ridiculously gorgeous models around Jesse (two of whom are played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) are soon jealous of her innocence.
I won’t reveal what happens next, except to say that it is at once thoroughly predictable and yet still kind of shocking. The story is even thinner than the models; Winding Refn is more interested in long, stylized sequences in which they sit, stand, stare, or walk around while Cliff Martinez’s electronic score throbs and grinds and Natasha Braier’s camera basks in the chilly, surreal beauty of Elliott Hostetter’s sets and Erin Benach’s costumes. That makes sense for a film about beauty, set in a world where prettiness is the only means of sustenance and communication. In that context, even the porny dialogue and flat delivery make perfect sense. (That said, there’s only so much anyone can do with lines like “Beauty is the only true currency we have,” and “I can’t dance, I can’t sing, I can’t write. But I’m pretty, and I can make money being pretty.”)
Neon Demon reminds me in some ways of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. To be sure, Winding Refn’s stone-faced New Wave cool is worlds apart from del Toro’s breathless Gothic hysteria. But both films share an earnest belief in the power of hyper-aestheticized cinematic passages, in the idea that beautiful surfaces create their own depth. Crimson Peak feels to me like it’s missing an act; Neon Demon ends just when it’s starting to get interesting. They’re cinematic earworms designed to linger in the mind and gnaw at your brain because of what they’re missing. I still can’t tell what I’ve gotten out of Neon Demon, but I feel like I’m about to get possessed by it.
Neon Demon has its problems, but it’s practically The Treasure of the Sierra Madre compared to the two current disasters of Cannes, Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World and Sean Penn’s The Last Face. Relatively few boos greeted the former, but Quebecois enfant terrible and Cannes regular Dolan’s latest has been met so far with near-unanimous scorn. Based on a 1990 work by the French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, who died at 38 of AIDS, the story follows a gay writer (Gaspard Ulliel) as he returns to inform the family he fled years before that he’s dying. As he contemplates the right moment to tell them, he finds everyone — especially his gruff, working-class older brother, played by Vincent Cassel — falling back into the same ignorance and contempt that chased him away in the first place.
It’s like watching assholes scream at each other for two hours. Dolan’s shrill film unfolds in ham-handed, cross-cutting close-ups that don’t feel like they belong in the same movie. That’s the idea, of course: Every character is in his or her own prison, unable to connect. Dolan doubles down on that idea: The shots and lighting don’t match, and characters spend entire scenes randomly turned away from each other. But just because it’s intentional doesn’t make it good. (Sometimes, it’s actually worse to realize the director knew what he was doing.)
Antonioni did this sort of thing with infinitely more grace decades ago, locking away characters in their own frames and separating them with visual barriers to convey their alienation. Dolan takes the conceit to such an extreme that it loses all meaning and simply becomes an annoying stylistic exercise. And what the characters are spitting and shrieking at each other plays like one-dimensional intolerance and boorishness, adding to the queasy feeling that the film comes less from a place of dramatic imagination and more from one of narcissistic score-settling.
As for Sean Penn’s The Last Face, a ridiculous romantic drama about a South African international aid worker (Charlize Theron) and a refugee doctor (Javier Bardem) who fall in and out of passionate love during the Sierra Leone civil war? Here’s a film whose sincerity is matched only by its titanic self-regard. Penn clearly aims to draw attention to the plight of African refugees and their devastated lives and communities, so he fills the screen with carnage – graphic, intense, even heartbreaking – but also as an impediment to the love story, and as a contrast to his two attractive stars.
Meanwhile, as their characters treat dying women and babies and amputate legs and cower before drugged-up guerillas, Bardem and Theron exchange goofily written dialogue about whether it’s better to stay on the ground and treat individual people, or to leave and try to appeal for help from the West. But the film still treats Africans as background cannon fodder in Theron’s journey of self-actualization. They don’t even get to be the agency through which she finds herself, an honor goes to the heroic and selfless (but, of course, philandering) Miguel, Bardem’s character: “Before I met him,” she says, “I was an idea. I didn’t really exist.”
Penn’s movie looks and sounds great, and it’s clear that the director has borrowed from the Thin Red Line stylebook of his old mentor Terrence Malick in the way he cuts up scenes, switches handheld perspectives, and throws in rhapsodic images of nature. It all might have at least had some kind of ragged, misguided nobility, were it not so poorly written – with howlingly bad dialogue and verbose narration in which Theron elaborately analyzes her character’s desire to live up to her father’s example. (Because apparently this all wasn’t condescending enough, Penn decided to throw in some daddy issues, too.)
Perhaps The Last Face’s most outrageous moment comes at the end, in which a character gives an impassioned speech about refugees and inadvertently lays bare the project’s central problem: “Refugees are not like us. They are us,” we’re told, before being reminded that the people suffering in Africa have dreams, and were doctors, lawyers, teachers before they were turned into refugees and victims war. It’s all very heartfelt, and it’s meant to make us take notice. But maybe Penn should have listened to his film’s own speech.