Mirrors are everywhere in The Neon Demon; Models constantly applying and removing makeup, fixing their hair, flashing looks back at themselves, only the best for the runway. The film’s opening scene is a conversation that takes place between two reflections: those of Jesse, 16 and new to L.A., and Ruby, a makeup artist who takes Jesse under her wing. The women speak without truly seeing one another, talking at an image rather than the real thing. It’s easy to call this shallow symbolism, that the lack of authenticity in Hollywood is thematically stale, so obvious at this point that it need not be addressed ever again. But to the filmmaker, this is of no concern.
This latest film from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn comes three years after his previous feature, Only God Forgive,s which was panned and criticized for its complete abandonment of plot in favor of visual stylization. A similar reaction is awaiting The Neon Demon (it was booed at Cannes film festival). But at this point, shouldn’t we expect this sort of thing? Refn is clearly uninterested in telling stories, making movies with plots. It’s frustrating, as we’ve seen what he can do with more traditional narratives (the Pusher trilogy, Drive). But for him, it’s more about the feeling, about what kind of atmosphere he can create, how he can boil the elements of a film down to its essentials and manipulate the audience to feel whatever he wants us to feel.
The Neon Demon is meant to be seen and heard; it’s highly sensual. Every shot is meant to shock us in some new way. Image and sound are made one, a single entity rather than two working in tandem; credit here to composer Cliff Martinez and cinematographer Natasha Braier. The movie is simply mesmerizing; so, too, is the cast. Elle Fanning is perfect as the pale, slight Jesse, a girl whose apparent purity is an object of envy to the other models. She has recently turned sixteen but is instructed by Roberta Hoffman, her new agent, to say she’s nineteen, as twenty-one is “too on the nose.”
Jesse’s youth and seeming innocence make her a target, too easily manipulated and too weak to escape. Ruby takes her to an exclusive party. There she meets Sarah and Gigi, two models who are nearing their expiration dates. Soon they will be yesterday’s news. Girls like Jesse are their replacements.
But the plot is unimportant. Many threads are left without conclusion, such as Jesse’s burgeoning romance with Dean, a young photographer, or her battles with Hank, the abusive, unhinged owner of the motel she resides at. Hank confides in Dean that the young woman in a neighboring room is for sale; “real Lolita shit,” he says. Eventually, he and the prostitute fade out of the movie, and we are left wondering what their purpose was.
It wasn’t until a few days after seeing the movie that I began to consider Dean and Hank more closely. Dean photographs Jesse in poses of death. She is sprawled across a couch and fake blood has been applied to her neck and body. Dean’s face appears sinister as he pulls away from the viewfinder of his camera. Otherwise, he is kind, earnest, naiveté bordering on stupidity. Hank is brutish and dangerous. Jesse cowers in fear as he brutally assaults a woman living next door. We hear her screams and his grunts. Dean might turn into Hank, given a few years time. Likewise, Hank might have been Dean a few years in the past.
The duplicitous nature of human beings is not new territory for Nicolas Winding Refn. His characters all possess evil within themselves. They are all prone to jealousy and rage, all suppressing murderous instincts. Ruby’s house (which may not be her house) is decorated with animals, stuffed and mounted, mostly predators: wolves, cougars, etc. Is it, like the mirrors, too obvious? Possibly. Was it Refn’s intention for people to analyze his film in such a literal, typical way? Probably not. I don’t think he particularly cares.
In an interview, Refn said he was tired of making movies about violent men, and that this time, the cast would be largely made up of women. The women of The Neon Demon are vicious, desperate people, concerned only with the smoothness of their skin, the radiance of their complexions. To be photographed—to be seen, to be admired—is everything. Even Jesse cannot help but give in to her own beauty. She is beautiful and knows it and wants everyone else to know it. She wants everyone to realize that they will never be as beautiful as she is.
What is the neon demon? It could be many things: the modeling industry, the city of Los Angeles, the sinister allure of fame, the thirst for and abuse of admiration. I think it is meant quite literally here. The film is drenched in neon. Every scene is lit in hues of pink, blue, green. Everything is lost in a haze of light. Within that light there is a demon, waiting, prowling, stalking. It will strike out and consume you only when you least expect it. When everything is perfect.
Written by Lucas Dispoto