Once the Cannes boos started, the hoots kept coming. Last night, they were for Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, a Hollywood nightmare starring Elle Fanning as an orphaned 16-year-old who moves to Los Angeles to model. Her frightened blue eyes, milky skin, and Rapunzel blonde curls make her an instant smash. They also make her the obsession of makeup artist Jena Malone, and the enemy of rival models Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee (both terrific).
Refn is interested in how the beauty business corrupts the soul, a shocker to absolutely no one. And to prove it, he lets us leer at a lot of beauty: models parading in their underwear; bondage babes strung up from the ceiling; Fanning's luminous face painted gold, dotted with rhinestones, and smeared with fake blood. It's two pages of plot and two hours of glamour photography, shot large and bold with strobe lights and a clear vision of how Refn wants it to look on a big screen. I kept waiting for the movie to take a twist, but instead it just dug its heels in deeper. Do you get how vanity destroys innocence now? What about now? What if Fanning poses on a diving board in a floaty dress and drones on that her mother warned that her lovely face was "dangerous"?
I can imagine people wanting to applaud Refn for making a movie that's wall-to-wall women except for a handful of male cameos, including Keanu Reeves as a sleazebag motel owner. But these are women as imagined by a man. They talk to each other with heavy pauses as if a porn scene could break out at any minute — the dialogue is so stiff that it almost feels like Refn is writing their lines on the spot and feeding them into an earpiece. They shower like everybody's watching, and whenever they're alone, they can't think of anything better to do than stare at themselves in the mirror. Bravo to Refn for making a film that's as superficial as the world he's criticizing.
But the Drive director will always have his champions, and when the boos started, fans countered them with cheers. Sean Penn wasn't so lucky. His sprawling African aid weepie The Last Face was jeered for its bad taste, both geeky (playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Otherside" three times, including during a sex scene) and grotesque (so so so so so many dead children, occasionally disemboweled or stacked waist-high and buzzing with flies). Despite strong performances from Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, The Last Face has a problem of too much ambition — which hurts me to say, as I like ambition. It's a romance between two refugee camp doctors fighting the same fight in different ways: Is it better to leave and bring the horror stories of Sierra Leone to the United Nations in Geneva, or stay put and save whatever lives they can? And it's a gory, exploitative shockudrama that reminded me of the faked snuff film Cannibal Holocaust. I respect Penn forcing us to see horrors we'd clearly rather ignore, or at least stash on page 14 of the paper where we might miss it. Still, the disconnect is so jarring that Penn cuts from one of Theron and Bardem's tender cot romps to them installing a spotlight so the local women don't get raped. The Last Face's clash between good intentions and godawful execution is best captured in this clunker, delivered by Penn's son Hopper's character, about a refugee slashed from vagina to anus: "She leaks urine but she's beautiful."
Still, at least The Last Face was given a slot at Cannes. Hundreds of the films here weren't. Instead, they loiter in sales booths next to the Palais praying that an international buyer snatches them up. Many are cheap riffs on name brands — the film version of a 99 Cent Store knock-off, like the cartoons Bobby the Hedgehog and Kung Food, starring a karate-chopping dumpling. On a lazy night of cable bingeing, who wouldn't watch The Amazing Wizard of Paws, whose poster boasts a dog in Harry Potter glasses? Most of the live-action movies star Dolph Lundgren or Denise Richards. One lucky flick, Altitude, starred both: Lundgren and Richards clutching walkie talkies above an exploding plane! Sold. Joey Lawrence fans will be glad he's still working, even if it's in movies like Arlo: The Burping Pig. (Tagline: "Gettin' Piggy With It!") But my personal favorite flick had the simplest sales pitch: Shark Exorcist, the title screamed above a shot of a priest shaking a crucifix before a flaming great white. "Satan Has Jaws," read the poster. And Shark Exorcist has my heart.
Sales agents are already packing up the Palais, taking with them unseen dreams. Tomorrow, the jury announces the grand prize awards. This is my second-to-last diary. I strolled up the hill to the annual critics luncheon, held on top of the twisty old city that overlooks the bay. It was beautiful. Hundreds of writers from all over the globe crammed into long tables divided by, as always, baguettes and bottles of rosé. The critics immediately polished off the wine. Then the seagulls came for the baguettes. As I wound toward my table clutching a plate of fish, roasted vegetables, and a mystery dessert made of powdered sugar, raisins, and spinach, a seagull slammed into my head. I heard the hollow thud of gym class dodgeball. Men pointed and laughed. Merci, Cannes. You got me again.