cannes film festival.jpg
Photograph: EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO

Every year a theme runs through the Cannes Film Festival. One year it was the number of dogs in the films, another year it was the number of people using the toilet.

This year cannibalism is all the rage.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has also spiced things up with a bit of necrophilia in The Neon Demon, his new film about the bitchy meat market of the Los Angeles fashion scene.

"It's a teen horror movie for teenagers," Refn told a press conference on Friday marking the premiere of the film, which is one of 21 movies vying for top honours in Cannes, including the Palme d'Or for best picture.

"The idea is about the obsession with beauty," said the 45-year-old Refn, who describes himself as the sex pistol of film. "Baby, we're search and destroy," he added, in reference to tune by the Sex Pistols.

The Neon Demon is based around the character of a 16-year-old from small-town America, who sets out on a modelling career in the City of Angels, and is literally devoured by her rivals at the end of the film.

"It's sex and violence; its primeval," said Refn. "It's intended to penetrate your mind. I think there is something very terrifying that the world can only be about beauty."

Among the other batch of films where the characters develop a taste for each other was Slack Bay from French director Bruno Dumont, a slapstick comedy mixed in with a hefty amount of black humour about a cannibal family living on the marshy north coast of France in 1910.

"We are both: cannibals and philistines," Dumont told dpa.

Then there was Raw from another French director Julia Ducournau that told the tale of a vegetarian in her first year at a veterinarian school where she is forced to eat raw meat as part of her induction as a student.

South Korea's Sang-ho Yeon's Train to Busan is about passengers on a train struggling to survive after a mysterious viral outbreak in the nation.

Soundly booed at its press screening Friday, the Neon Demon stars 18-year-old Elle Fanning who plays Jesse, a girl who seemingly has only one pal in the film, Ruby, a makeup artist and who moonlights in a mortuary. Unhappy that Jesse refuses to have sex with her, Ruby turns to necrophilia instead.

"It's the darkest role that I have done," said Fanning, who still lives with her parents and is trying to finish high school in the United States. She's been in films since she was two.

"What you are seeing is that death and beauty has become one," Refn said in his defence. "There is something beautiful about sexualizing everything."

Refn was inspired to make his film after he met Fanning, who was 16 at the time. He realized, he said, "I could live my perverse dream of being a 16-year-old girl, which is what every man has inside him."

"You are me," Refn said he told Fanning. "Would you like to make a movie with me?"

A film greeted with boos but somehow containing no acts of cannibalism was The Last Face from former Cannes jury president and two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn.

Penn's movie, which also premiered on Friday, tells the story of a love affair between a relief-aid doctor played by Spain's Javier Bardem and the director of an international aid organization in war-torn Liberia. Charlize Theron plays an aid organization director.

"The question of love and war ... seem to blend," Penn told a press conference for the Cannes premiere of the film, his fifth movie as director since his 2007 hit Into the Wild.

When asked at the press conference about the mixed reaction to The Last Face, Penn replied: "I stand behind the film as it is. Everybody is going to be entitled to their response."

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