The fashion model industry is known for chewing young girls up and spitting them out. In his latest film, divisive director Nicolas Winding Refn pushes this stereotype as far as it can possibly go. The Neon Demon is a stunningly gorgeous film, reminiscent of Mulholland Drive (one of my absolute favourite films), Black Swan, and countless Italian giallo films.
As with most Refn films, the plot is fairly sparse – young, small-town Jesse, played by doe-eyed Elle Fanning, tries to break into the Los Angeles fashion industry – and it’s rather the stylistic elements, the visuals and music, where Refn places more of his focus. All the asesthetic elements of the film are as brilliant as can now be expected of Refn and his frequent collaborators. Composer Cliff Martinez’s score is the highest point of his collaborations with Refn so far, the piece around the midpoint of the film during the runway scene, where multiple motifs collide with each other, a particular highlight. There’s also an original song by the artist Sia during the credits, which is also very enjoyable.
Natasha Braier’s cinematography is possibly the greatest aspect of the film – there are countless scenes where I did little else but soak up the stunning visuals. Refn’s command of colour is as unique as usual. The runway sequence in the middle of the film sees Refn use colour as the sole element through which to communicate an important plot point, protagonist Jesse’s “Narcissus stares into the pool” moment, with the film’s prominent recurring motif of mirrors playing the part of the pool.
That runway scene is the chief structural division of the film. Refn eschews a typical three-act structure, the only real division is the narrative before the runway scene (a more conventional narrative, with characters played with a more conventional amount of depth) and after the runway scene (where the film leans harder into telling the story through visual symbolism, using characters more as visual tools to manipulate into making the points of the film through). I found the descent into surrealism in the second half quite enjoyable, with the last twenty minutes or so quite the show-stopper.
Refn toys with referencing the occult in the film. I originally took the recurring visual motif of triangles just to be for flavour, until I recognised the consistent pattern as matching the three-triangle pattern of “the mark of the Beast”. There are frequent references to the somewhat-spiritual importance and power of virginity and the moon. Jena Malone’s character sports tattoos that seem to fit some form of occult symbology. The three chief non-protagonist female characters seem to evoke a coven in the later parts of the film. Some characters take fairy-tale type myths like “bathing in virgin’s blood to stay youthful” quite seriously. There’s a provocative shot near the end of the film, involving Malone’s character on the floor covered in moonlight, that is very evocative of occult imagery. Apart from that shot, I’d say the occult aspects are fairly lowkey in the film, but it’s an interesting undercurrent throughout.
Plenty of girls get eaten alive in showbiz, and thematically, the film is most focused on that self-cannibalising nature of the fashion modelling industry. Girls eat other alive to get a leg up. Three characters, early on in the film, ask protagonist Jesse “are you food, or are you sex?” in reference to a characteristic of lipstick marketing, and that question – are you someone to chew up and spit out to move ahead in the industry, or are you an object of desire to lust over and desire to emulate – pervades much of the film’s story.
Sex is an ever-present concern in the film, but I’d hesitate before calling it an erotic thriller or anything like that. It’s decidedly un-sexy a lot of the time. One scene uses a corpse to make an explicit point that if all you truly care about is someone’s looks, their superficial sexual attributes, then you may as well just pursue cadavers, because the endpoint of sexual objectification is regarding the identity of a person so little that they’re treated as nothing more than a lump of dead flesh.
What is beauty worth? One character postulates that “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”. What is the logical endpoint of such a view? What sort of mindset does such a belief produce? These are the questions Refn explores, usually through visuals more than dialogue or plot. The characters are chiefly archetypes – Jesse as the natural beauty, Gigi as the manufactured beauty, Sarah as the lost beauty, and so on. The most prominent male character, Dean, claims to pay no mind to physical beauty, but other characters see through the self-righteous moral identity he’s falsely created for himself, and he eventually devolves into performing possibly the most disturbing act of the film.
Refn’s films certainly aren’t for everyone, but I’m very happy to not count myself as part of that “everyone”. I give this film four photoshoots, and a cougar.