In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn won a best director award at Cannes for his glacially stylish yet ultra-violent thriller, Drive, the film that turned Ryan Gosling into the world’s coolest man, and sparked a brief craze for quilted satin jackets with scorpions on the back. Two years later, the Danish director returned to Cannes with Only God Forgives, but this time the Gosling-gore combo was greeted by boos and vitriolic reviews.

It would be a relief to report that Refn’s new film, The Neon Demon, is set to bring him roaring back into favour, but his fashion-industry horror reverie is actually so empty and self-parodic that he might not be invited to Cannes again. Its futuristic nightclub aesthetic is mesmeric for the first 15 minutes, and in the last 15 minutes its leaps to giddy heights of nastiness and transgression. But in the intervening hour and a half, it is somewhere between a pop video and an art installation, but it’s barely a film at all.

It’s somewhere between a pop video and an art installation

The Neon Demon - a cool but irrelevant title - opens with a shot of a blonde girl (Elle Fanning), reclining artfully on a chaise longue, sequins on her face and blood all over her blue metallic dress. We aren’t witnessing an unusually chic murder scene, though, but a photo shoot. The blonde is Jesse, an aspiring 16 year-old model who has just got off the bus from Georgia to Los Angeles. The photographs don’t show much of her, beneath all the blood and sequins, but they somehow impress the head of a modelling agency (Christina Hendricks), and Jesse is given a contract.

It’s fun to see Hendricks in imperious Mad Men mode, sashaying into her office’s reception area, pointing at one of the hopeful girls waiting there, and pronouncing, “You can go.” But you have to enjoy her cameo while you can, because she doesn’t appear again. One reason why The Neon Demon is so uninvolving is that the characters keep vanishing before they can be developed, leaving the viewer with Jesse as she drifts, cheerily but blankly, through a film which has more do with fairy-tale archetypes than recognisable human behaviour.

Frock horror

Fanning (who played Sleeping Beauty in Disney’s Maleficent) is the virginal princess. Karl Glusman, the photographer in that opening scene, is her handsome prince. Keanu Reeves, the sleazebag manager of the cheap motel where Jesse is staying, is one of several big bad wolves. Jena Malone is the scene-stealing wicked stepmother, a make-up artist whose kindness towards Jesse has ominous undertones. Finally, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee are the ugly-on-the-inside sisters: two cold, bionic models who could be Allen Jones sculptures brought (barely) to life. Both are jealous of the innocent newcomer in town, whose fresh-faced prettiness outshines their surgically-enhanced fembot perfection. Crucially, she is younger than they are, and that gives her a stratospheric advantage in an industry which values youth above all else. By the time you’re 21, someone says, you might as well retire.

Refn presumably hasn’t heard that the highest earning model in 2015 was Gisele Bündchen, who is 35, but then, he doesn’t seem to have heard much about modelling in general. The film’s supposed insights amount to precious perfume-ad slogans (“Beauty is the highest commodity there is”) and mouldy caricatures. Is anyone going to be shocked to learn that models can be bitchy, or that a designer (Alessandro Nivola) can be pretentious, or that a photographer (Desmond Harrington) can be insensitive, or that a make-up artist can be a necrophiliac lesbian with a taste for blood? Well, all right, perhaps they’ll be shocked by that last bit, but that’s why it’s so frustrating that Refn saves the slasher-movie thrills and Cronenbergian body-horror until the film is almost over.

It’s amazing to think that he co-wrote the script with two playwrights, Polly Stenham and Mary Laws, because there is so little to the plot and dialogue prior to that climactic spurt of action that the screenplay can’t have been longer than 50 pages. Filling the time with moody pauses and slow-motion sequence, the director is far less interested in gripping us with his story than in dazzling us with the pop-art flash of his silhouettes and strobe lights. With the help of Cliff Martinez’s glittering electronic score, The Neon Demon sometimes becomes a surreal science-fiction epic about Stepford androids, but even the imagery isn’t quite as awe-inspiring as Refn clearly thinks it is. Glance at a few glossily pervy album covers (Pulp, Robert Palmer, Roxy Music), and flick through a couple of coffee-table books about Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, and you’ll have seen a lot of what he has to show you.

Luckily, the gruesome final stretch is so fabulously outrageous that it just about vindicates the rest of The Neon Demon. But the idea that a new film from a provocateur of Refn’s talents should be so underwhelming... that’s the most outrageous thing about it.

★★☆☆☆

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