Text by Benjamin Dodman, France 24
Nicolas Winding Refn’s allegory about blood-slurping fashion models (“The Neon Demon”) is at least stylish, but there is no saving grace in “The Last Face”, Sean Penn’s crass and tedious tale of white people’s romance in a blood-soaked Africa.
The last stretch of the Cannes Film Festival is perhaps an odd time to touch on this year’s official poster, but the sumptuous picture is well worth a mention. Based on stills from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 classic “Contempt” (“Le Mépris”), it features a man ascending a staircase that looks out onto the Mediterranean, the scene bathed in golden light – or a Beijing-smog yellow, depending on how you see it. Of course the poster evokes Cannes’ famous red-carpeted steps. But it is also an inherently political statement. “Contempt” is one of the first movies about movies, an anguishing rhapsody haunted by a soundtrack that stays with you forever. It is a devastatingly beautiful film that portrays the world of cinema as a corrupting environment in which crooked producers humiliate filmmakers and screenwriters pimp their wives to assist their career.
Pretty-faced young girls groomed for stardom and swiftly devoured by the Californian beauty industry have long been a staple of the movies. Nicolas Winding Refn has used the same old recipe as a basis for his latest menacingly atmospheric bloodbath, set in the Los Angeles fashion underworld. “The Neon Demon” is his third competition entry at Cannes, after the overrated “Drive” (2011) and underrated “Only God Forgives” (2013). Like his previous work, it is oneiric, erotic and cruel, and further evidence of the Danish director’s diminishing interest in narrative.
Refn has said he’s fed up with making movies about violent men. So he’s done one with violent women instead. It stars Elle Fanning as doll-like 16-year-old Jesse, an aspiring young model who finds out just how shallow and cutthroat – literally – the industry is. As always, the limited story-telling is done through stylised, surreal images drenched in California’s unforgiving light or caked in neon colours. Thus Jesse’s far from seamless transition from sweet ingénue to vain idol is wrapped up in one, hypnotic scene reproducing the myth of Narcissus swallowed by the beauty of his own reflection.
“The Neon Demon” throws in a tasty cameo by Keanu Reeves as a libidinous goon, and adds lesbian necrophilia to the festival’s catalogue of licentiousness, which already featured cannibalism and sex-induced mercy killing. It serves up a heady cocktail of blood slurping, leather strappings and throbbing electronic sounds, imposing the filmmaker’s typically languorous pace on the frantic world of fashion. As is often the case with Refn, sensation eclipses sensibility, and while I was at times wowed, I was never really engaged. His latest nightmarish venture felt like a jewel-encrusted but largely empty casket, about as shallow as the industry it portrays.
Penn embarrasses Cannes and himself
Refn’s preposterous film noir fetched more and louder boos than any other film in the competition – until Sean Penn came along with his woeful entry, a grotesque tale of white folks falling in love in blood-soaked Africa. Penn’s global activism has kept him away from the director’s chair for close to a decade. He merges the two in his latest work, but it seems celebrity and moralising politics have conspired to cloud his cinematic judgment, or indeed his judgment tout court. “The Last Face” is the ultimate well-intentioned movie gone horribly wrong. It resembles a never-ending, tear-jerking, fund-raising video designed to stir Western guilt at the plight of Africa. Except it is culpable of the very smugness it professes to denounce.
The film revolves around a troubled romance between two doctors, played by Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, set in war-torn Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan. Theron’s consistently annoying voiceover tells us that “the resilience and beauty of refugees inspired an intoxicating passion” between the two protagonists. War, poverty and suffering are heavily aestheticized, serving as dramatic backdrops for a tedious love story between white folks. The poorly scripted and acted liaison features such groan-worthy lines as “Being inside me is not knowing me” and “I told her that I loved her, but I never told her that I loved her as much as I love you”.
“The Last Face” hints at potentially interesting questions about humanitarian activism and why some aid workers might become addicted to the field (“To be needed meant everything to me” says Bardem’s character), but without ever exploring them. Astonishingly, black characters have no other role in the film than to scream for help and have their limbs hacked off. In one particularly crass scene another white girl reveals she also slept with Bardem and is HIV positive, leading to much drama and anxious waiting for him and Theron – and that’s all the film has to say about Africa’s huge, enduring HIV problem.
Sure enough, the movie prompted a chorus of groans, jeers and mocking laughter at the press screening on Friday, and soon became the joke of the festival. It is a dud, a chore to sit through, and an embarrassment for both the filmmaker and Cannes. That it was deemed fit to compete for the biggest prize in cinema simply beggars belief.