Nicholas Winding Refn’s darkly satirical drama, what he calls “a beauty-obsessed horror film,” has inspired mixed reactions, as exemplified by its presentation at Cannes, where it was not only angrily booed by part of the audience, but inspired some to flee the room as the film explored increasingly disturbing forms of violence, ultimately delving into necrophilia and cannibalism; yet was also nominated for the film festival’s highest honour, the Palme D’or. It’s easy to understand the varied responses; The Neon Demon can be described convincingly as a gorgeous, edgy, boundary-testing masterpiece, or just as easily and as accurately as a pretentious, twisted, misogynist snuff film.
The central character is an aspiring model named Jesse (Elle Fanning), who has moved to Los Angeles from a small town in order to try her luck. Rather than following the typical movie scenario of struggle and disillusionment for the naive young neophyte, the film has Jesse meet with almost immediate success. She is everything sought after in a model: pretty, blonde, thin, and very young – in fact, too young to work legally; barely sixteen, Jesse has to forge her late parents’ signatures on consent forms in order to model. She is accepted by a modelling agent, Ruby, who recognises Jesse’s ineffable allure and predicts great success for the girl.Soon after her arrival in the city, Jesse is invited to a party, one which features relentlessly beautiful people, a stylishly raucous atmosphere, and eerie performance art, apparently as an introduction to the social life of L.A. models and their entourages. When Jesse, feeling out of her depth, takes refuge in the ladies’ room, she runs into a small group of successful fashion models. The powder room scene is crammed with sinister hints of bad things to come. One model’s lipstick colour is named Red Rum, a promising reference to The Shining’s murder warning. This leads to a discussion of marketing, and the claim that lipstick sells better when its name refers to either food or sex. “Which are you?” one of the perfect young women asks Jesse archly, “Food or sex?” Their envy of Jesse is almost palpable, especially when it emerges that Jesse, unlike any of the others, has never undergone cosmetic surgery of any kind.
Everything in the film is slightly threatening. Jesse’s boyfriend is “a guy who found me on the internet” and photographs her posing as a murder victim in the film’s opening scene. Her model agency is clearly cutthroat. The fashion photographer who agrees to work with her is demanding and objectifying almost to the point of abuse. Yet Jesse emerges from these situations safely and with her confidence intact.
As Jesse’s success continues, resentment from other models increases. Their self-loathing emerges along with their jealousy of Jesse’s effortless beauty. When another discussion of cosmetic surgery leads a model to remark casually, “Nobody likes the way they look,” Jesse replies earnestly, “I do,” her outwardly casual remark a virtual slap in the face to her peers. She has begun to recognise, and even enjoy, the pre-eminence her beauty gives her.
The film begins to introduce the notion of other, less mundane threats, and in the process becomes increasingly confusing and self-consciously bizarre. Jesse’s appearance on the runway, a moment of triumph for her, is a hallucination-like montage seen through a blood-red filter. The red camera filter is used repeatedly, and the second half of the film is full of references to blood and the colour red: the models’ fascination with blood; Jesse accidentally cutting herself; menstrual blood; red garments; red patterns in the fantasy montages. Jesse’s agent is even named Ruby. (An emphasis on the colour red and the use of a red filter is a trademark of Refn’s work, but it is quite predominant here.) At the same time, the other models and Ruby are glimpsed doing strange and ominous things behind the scenes, involving mysterious private rituals and dead bodies. All of this is understood to be somehow tied to Jesse’s gift of radiant beauty, and other women’s envy of it. Supernatural forces seem to be at work, causing Jesse to experience frightening, unexplained phenomena.When the real threat is finally made clear, the story slips its bonds completely and lapses into an orgy of the aforementioned murder, necrophilia, and cannibalism, shown through a similar orgy of experimental camera work. The phenomenon of women in perpetual rivalry and mutual resentment over one another’s beauty, the only female attribute given any value in this storyline, is turned into an occult fable with an appropriately ghoulish conclusion.
The acting by Elle Fanning and the eclectic cast was a little off, not so much because of any flaw in the performances, but because the characters, presumably under the instructions of the director, all came across as though oddness and equivocation were the only qualities worth projecting. A similar approach was found even in minor characters, such as Keanu Reeves’ absurdly gruff and menacing portrayal of the caretaker of Jesse’s building. Jesse’s own personality is written inconsistently, or at least is not properly explained.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, stands out, and in fact provides more emotion than some of the characters. Refn allows the music to come to the foreground in many scenes, and provide a non-verbal commentary on the action, to wonderful effect. The distinctive cinematography can only be described as extravagantly and even showily unusual.
There are two aspects of The Neon Demon which are at least a little disturbing. One is the level of the graphic and unusual violence, which is as senseless as it is extreme, and which Refn seems to delight in displaying creatively and at length. The second is the way the theme of women in competition with one another is handled. The bland objectification of the modelling business, the self-loathing, self-mutilation, and desperation of the lovely young models, are cuttingly satirised, but in a way that not only normalises their attitude, but seems to revel in it. Humour is present, but it’s not always clear at whose expense the joke is told. When you get right down to it, it’s the look of The Neon Demon that is its most unqualified success – oddly appropriate in a film about a focus on appearance above all. Enjoy the film for its style, not its substance.
For further viewing:
Female rivalry receives a straightforward and less outlandish turn in the excellent 1950 Bette Davis classic, All About Eve.