Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, is a parable about the allure and danger of beauty. The film examines the dog-eat-dog nature of the modeling industry and displays the depravity that the pursuit of beauty encourages. Using the standard “fresh face in the Big City” story as a jumping off point, Refn also invokes some interesting naiveté and maturation-based themes by focusing on the character 16-year old Jesse (Elle Fanning). Sexuality exists in this film, but is mostly depraved, violent, and feminine. The infamous and ethereal “It Factor” is touched upon as well, as well as the artifice of beauty, and how it is instantly noticeable. Though very much an “art house” film, Refn weaves a disturbing and edgy story in between his bizarre non-narrative light shows. I would not fault viewers who balk at this method of storytelling, but the film is sufficiently interesting from a cinematic standpoint to at least generate some great discussion.
The plot of The Neon Demon is very Hollywood in an Inside-Baseball kind of way. Jesse is fresh off the bus from some Podunk, but manages to threaten the established talent immediately. Her “It Factor” is off the charts, and though she is horribly inexperienced and wide-eyed at the beginning, she is able to establish herself in the industry almost without effort. She seems to understand her value and the strangeness of it all in an abstract way, but we really don’t get a sense that she owns it yet (that comes later). Early on in the film she has a great mini-speech to her pseudo-boyfriend, Dean: “I can’t sing, act, dance, but I am pretty. I can make money off pretty.” And so can others.
Jesse’s first real interactions in Hollywood are with a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) and a couple of older, established models. Ruby recognizes the potential greatness of Jesse and instantly befriends her, but the other girls act barbed and jealous from the get-go. They seems to know that their time in the business is limited, and feel threatened by Jesse immediately. Later, after fully awakening and realize the extent of her beauty, Jesse sums up the reasons curtly: “I don’t want to be like them. They want to be like me.”
The visual aesthetic of Refn’s film is very fluorescent, and the characters are made to look incredibly artificial with their make-up and clothes, especially when on a shoot. Many night scenes in clubs or on the catwalk feature blinking or glowing lights which are completely drowned out by darkness in between flashes, producing a kind of strobe effect. Often, these sequences signify some crucial moment of a character’s mental state, and are rarely played for strict advancement of the narrative. This can be frustrating at times as it feels that Refn is meandering, favoring an incredibly artsy style in favor of moving the plot, but as a proxy for intimate character development, most of the sequences work just fine.
And let’s talk about mirrors. Mirrors are everywhere in this film, potentially suggesting an overall air of vanity, or maybe introspection / self-reflection. The mirrors often are used to harm also, both physically and mentally. Sometimes we’re not even aware we’re looking at a reflection until the camera zooms out or pans slightly. It comes off as a bit of a facade, as if we’re not looking at a genuine representation of the character on screen, but only an approximation, which gels well with the theme of the artificiality of a manufactured, corporate-serving beauty.
Violence is present in many forms in this film. An omnipresent danger seems to follow Jesse just off-screen, even when nothing bad is happening. There is an air of mortality throughout the film, as if it is only a matter of time until she succumbs to the evil around her. That evil is the beauty-crazed industry of modeling, where the truly beautiful are envied and ravaged asunder by more ersatz beauties, and the final act of the film absolutely delivers on this promise. It also firmly establishes the film as parable. Murdering and consuming our main character to assume her beauty and powers is almost mythical in its construction, but is played at face-value here. And if that wasn’t enough, when one of her rivals pukes up a full eyeball as a visceral rejection of Jesse’s beauty – either because she was not worthy of it or couldn’t handle the guilt – you’ve got to recognize how crazy it all is.
Once we’re in this realm, interpretation becomes more fluid and free. The industry doesn’t have to literally chew someone up, rape and murder young girls, or bathe in the blood of virgins to have metaphorical effects which mirror these physical insults. Instead, it functions through leering self-important talent scouts who will dismiss women after a single look, a cohort of women who will undermine and exploit each other for their own benefit, or a race-to-the-bottom of physical alteration ultimately producing a homogenous vision of “objective” beauty for the public’s consumption – pun intended.
The perception that Refn loads his films with pretension and art house sensibility will not be dispelled by The Neon Demon, and there will be elements that dissuade many viewers. The film is just kind of weird, from the characters, to the pacing, to the strange influxes of violence and bizarre sexuality for seemingly no reason. But, underlying the entire narrative and stylistic leanings of the film is an undying tension and unsettling mood. There are parts of Under the Skin, The Black Swan, and even elements of Cronenbergian body-horror in this film, so it keeps great company. I wouldn’t say it is the equal of those kinds of films, but it evokes similar emotional responses.
The style is a strain and could cause even the most die-hard cinephiles to balk, but there are some fascinating sequences of tension, transformation, and illumination of evil in this film. The consideration of beauty and what it takes to become beautiful are placed center-stage and left for the audience to consider themselves. And the conclusion of the film leaves no doubt that the narrative of the film is not to be taken literally, but as an allegory espousing the evils of a dogged pursuit of commercial beautification. This is a bizarre and considered film that has rewards to offer those that want to ponder the questions that Refn raises in between his style-heavy departures from the story.