The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Karl Glusman, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola
Seen on: 8.6.2016
Jesse (Elle Fanning) just moved to L.A., dreaming of a career as a model. She meets photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) and make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who both take a shine to her and try to help. Since there is something about Jesse, that seems barely necessary though – her career is definitely off to a good start. But young girls like Jesse are quickly swallowed by the fashion world and grow older too fast – which is what happened to Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who can’t stand Jesse waiting in the wings to take their place.
The Neon Demon is a hypnotizing film that manages to conjure up an intriguing atmosphere that kept me glued to my seat. But – as with Drive – it only worked for me because I read it completely different from what Refn apparently intended to say.
The Neon Demon takes a very literal approach when it has Ruby, Gigi and Sarah eat Jesse to get some of her magic, to rejuvenate themselves and their careers (or in Ruby’s case, to get a piece of Jesse). Most critical reviews of the film I read point out that it makes the women the villains in a world that is run by men, refusing to face their role in the fashion industry that makes women turn on each other. There is a certain truth to this that I won’t deny. It is also true that there are many scenes that heavily sexualize Elle Fanning and that Refn himself said in the talk after the film (with a big fat grin) that he didn’t think he’d get away with that since she was only sixteen at them time of the shoot. But I do think there is more to the film than that, whether Refn knows it or not.
Neon Demon is also a film that shows that the most radical statement a young girl can make is to utter in full confidence that she is beautiful and that she is going to succeed. That confidence more than anything else is what seals Jesse’s fate. The other women can’t abide by it, having been taught all their lives that they are not enough and that they will definitely fail, it is only a matter of time. Then along comes this naive young girl and she believes all those big lies – American dream, a girl can have it all, equal opportunity, dishwasher to millionaire, what have you. And that honest belief has to be destroyed as it is coveted. In a transfixing scene, Jesse herself seems to destroy her own naive belief as she walks out on the catwalk. Pretty young girls are dangerous, as Jesse states – at least when they carry themselves with confidence. They are a danger to the status quo where girls are supposed to bashfully reject all compliments that men deign to give them.
I also thought that it showed the men in the film rather critically, even if the focus isn’t on them. The few that there are serve as a constant unsettling threat in very many different ways. There’s Dean, who appears as the good guy and even pauses when Jesse confesses how young she actually is, but who is possessive and has no problems photographing her as a corpse – and ultimately doesn’t mind her age and continues dating her. There’s the seedy motel owner Hank (Keanu Reeves) who houses many underage girls and rapes them when he feels like it (in a chilling scene it is shown that protecting yourself from rape doesn’t mean there won’t be a rape at all, just that it will happen to somebody else). There’s the gay designer (Alessandro Nivola) who objecitifies and sexualizes Jesse just as much as a straight designer would. And there’s the photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington who is so intense in the role it practically nailed me to my seat with his gaze) who creates a situation that screams of rape, only to show that he doesn’t even think of Jesse as a human being enough to abuse her, handling her like he would handle a statue.
I don’t think that Refn necessarily intended that look at the men in the film – he is much too preoccupied with the women – but that doesn’t mean that in the folds and creases of the film there is more to find than a pretty obvious metaphor and a film that objectifies its women as much as it seems to call out that objectification.
Judging by what I’ve seen so far, Refn always managed to achieve films that surround me with their atmosphere and have me intensely focused on them for as long as they last, and longer. That is also the case with Neon Demon. It’s a masterclass in style, always looking fascinating and intriguing. And with Elle Fanning it has the perfect lead. She was always good in the films I saw her in, but she really becomes this magical creature that the film needs her to be here. Jena Malone was also pitch-perfect.
Refn is not a filmmaker I necessarily agree with. As I said, I doubt that he intended to pack into the film what I got out of it, quite to the contrary: I’m convinced that I reach exactly the opposite conclusion from him many times. But I do have to give credit to him for making me think about these issues by critically engaging with his complex movie. And he does make that engagement surprisingly easy.
Summarizing: Worth seeing, definitely, even if you may have to read it against the grain.