In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
DVD REVIEW – THE NEON DEMON – ****
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington. USA / France / Denmark 2016 117 mins Certificate: 18
Released by Icon Home Entertainment on 31st October 2016
As Cliff Martinez’s characteristically dynamic, pulsing synth score shimmers onto the audio track, the lingering tableau of a gruesome death staged for the camera sets the tone for the latest from Nicolas Winding Refn. One thing’s for sure, it won’t win any converts to the Refn church and, like the unfairly maligned ONLY GOD FORGIVES, has far less potential crossover appeal than the breakout hit DRIVE. For those attuned to Refn’s distinctive style (with Martinez being just one of the key personnel carried over from the earlier films), it’s another hypnotic cinematic journey from one of the industry’s true individuals.
Elle Fanning is outstanding in a rare female lead in a Refn picture. Just turned 16, she turns up in L.A. as a naive young woman trying to get a break in a notoriously fickle and heartless industry. She is, however, smart enough to know that for all the talent she lacks in other departments, she can certainly “make money from pretty”. A meeting with agent Christina Hendricks clinches it, promising her international success and work with the very best photographers…providing she pretends to be 19. Fanning’s rapid rise in the modelling world earns the ire of two supermodel peers (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee). Their attempts at socialising (“He calls me the Bionic Woman!” one of them brags, to which Fanning innocently questions “Is that a compliment?”) and willingness to redesign their bodies to attain a perceived perfection reflects the grim nature of an industry where the key players have a constantly imminent expiration date. Their professional jealousy takes the film on an outrageous climactic path, while Fanning transforms physically and psychologically before our eyes.
“Are you food or are you sex?” It’s undeniably among the easiest of targets, but Refn’s own heavily stylised cinematic world offers a droll satire of the modelling industry, with amusing secondary characters including the prominent designer unable to conceal his own failed performing ambitions, and the repressed make-up artist (Jena Malone) with an unrequited lust for Fanning that leads her to a taboo-shattering coupling. Fanning is perfectly cast as the only remotely sympathetic character, her unique woman-child physicality essential for the role of a sexually immature girl thrust into a lucrative spotlight where the deepest analysis of her success is “She has that….thing.” The actress perfectly conveys the character’s striking transformation from a vulnerable, sexually immature teenager who just happens to possess a marketable, sought-after image that doesn’t require millions of dollars of plastic surgery. By the end, she becomes at one with the universe that seemed so alien, lamenting the peers who carve up their bodies and starve themselves to death in the vain hope they will end up looking like a second-rate imitation of her. Keanu Reeves takes one of the boldest roles of his career as a predatory, paedophile motel manager, and Refn even finds a decent use for the perpetually wooden Desmond Harrington as a sleazy photographer.
THE NEON DEMON unfolds in the familiar Refn style, flirting frequently with surrealism (a bizarre motel room invasion, ominous hands protruding from a wall a la A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and crafting a detached, icy visualisation of a depressing 21st century environment overwhelmed by a pervasive, Lynchian pervasive sense of dread. Refn’s deliberate pacing, use of music and silence, employment of light and colour, slo-mo segues and the omnipresent reflective surfaces are all pivotal in creating another divisive, entrancing experience. He also shares Lynch’s fondness for embracing contentious imagery: a necrophilia interlude is among the most striking scenes to feature a mainstream actress in recent times, and the narrative escalates into full blown horror and exploitation in the last half hour, complete with cannibalism and bloody shower scenes.
As beguiling as we have come to expect from its creator, the movie is as ironically beautiful, alluring and repellent as the (literally) all-consuming world it depicts with such contempt. Undoubtedly one of the year’s best.