The Neon Demon is about the deadliness of artifice, the predatory nature of corporate industry built on facades, on what lies without rather than within, and in a literal, horrific sense, what such artifice can do to you. Yet the message, ultimately, is defiantly obtuse.
Nicolas Winding Refn remains a director distant to me, having not seen any of his back catalogue before watching The Neon Demon, but his reputation for slick style has divided plenty of people over multiple films. Are his movies visually striking and profound or is there no substance behind the colourful, vibrant thrills? That question definitely remains open by the end of The Neon Demon, perhaps more than films such as Bronson or Drive on which he built his name, and growing reputation as an auteur. This is a picture capable of providing as much revulsion as appreciation.
For me, the feeling was fascination. The Neon Demon comes across as very self-referential and self-aware, even while being deliberately enigmatic and metaphorical. In a way, the very construct and context of the film parallels the lead character, Jesse (played with knowing, entrancing guile by Elle Fanning). She begins as a fresh-faced, orphaned, quiet upstart in the fashion industry of Los Angeles and ends up a vampish, abused, self-destroyed victim plunged into an arthouse horror picture by the conclusion. Refn’s film takes the same path: it knows how beautiful it is but increasingly becomes consumed by the horror lurking behind the mirror.
Make no mistake, Refn has made a horror film here. Knives are brandished, and in one quite disturbing scene sexually plunged down Fanning’s throat. Blood is spilled, whether cutting a hand on glass or ripping open your own guts with a pair of scissors. Taboo subjects that even many horror films would shy away from are on the table; paedophilia, mercifully not visualised but heavily suggested; cannibalism and necrophilia, which absolutely *is* visualised in what stands among one of the most unnerving sequences in modern cinema. Refn’s film steadily becomes a horrific tableaux of self-destruction the deeper down the rabbit hole Jesse goes.
Said cannibalism forms part of a deeper level of horrific psychology at work in Refn’s film. Gigi & Sarah, the two existing models who feel threatened by Jesse’s arrival on the scene, are obsessed with food and consumption to the point they barely eat. Yet the impulse consumes them, just as Jesse is consumed by the industry. Sarah has vampiric connotations, lapping up Jesse’s spilled blood. They are obsessed with consumption and in their final, ultimate act of consumption, Refn connects with ideas in folklore talking about how eating human flesh can lead to a kind of transformation and transmigration. These women go way beyond the typical level of cosmetic alteration to their looks to maintain youth and beauty – they literally try and consume what they don’t have.
Naturally, fashion is mixed heavily with sex, or at least the suggestion of sex. Nobody actually has consensual sex with each other in the course of The Neon Demon, mainly because sexual urges and fantasies are realised in the hyper-real manner Refn paints his entire picture. Keanu Reeves’ creepy motel owner getting his rocks off in the aforementioned knife sequence or Jena Malone’s stylist (in a rare instance of this being shown between women) attempting to rape Jesse after misjudging homosexual intentions, before going on to do something perhaps worse in order to satisfy her urges. Sex and blood are mixed up with the rise and fall of Jesse and her success.
This is where it recalled, for me, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Stay with me on this, because it may not seem an obvious parallel; where Refn blows his wad through suggestive sexual imagery such as Fanning listening to horrific sexual violence as she emerges from a kind of seeded chrysalis, or neon symbols which could just as easily be vaginas as they are diamonds, Verhoeven famously threw sex so in your face he might as well have just masturbated over the lens. Yet the arc of Jesse mirrors that of Elizabeth Berkley’s Nomi in Showgirls; principally a young girl with a nebulous past rising fast in a vacuous industry because she possesses that *something*, only to be hated for it by her rivals.
Many of the same kind of characters exist in both films; Alessandro Nivola’s pretentious fashion designer could just as easily be Kyle MacLachlan’s swanky casino entertainment director; Malone’s character portrays the friend, at least at the beginning, who provides the tormented Jesse with solace (as Nomi had); Karl Glusman’s Dean, the only character in the film with any sense of humanity, could be Glenn Plummer’s genuine love interest; and jointly Bella Heathcote & Abbey Lee represent the rival element as Gina Gershon did in Verhoeven’s film, the statuesque models on their way down as Jesse is on her way up. The two films, though tonally and textually miles apart, share a common DNA.
Refn is far more intentionally abstract than Verhoeven ever was, however, in Showgirls or anything else. Whereas the message in Showgirls was how you could ultimately beat and escape a system which lifts you up and sends you plunging back down, Refn’s message is far less clear and far bleaker. Verhoeven seemed to actually like his protagonist in the end, despite how self-centred and naive she could be, whereas Refn seems to take a certain twisted delight in Jesse learning her very literal, visceral lesson: this industry will eat you up, chew you, and spit you out. It’s almost shocking in how macabre her fate really is.
The signs are all there though, all across the film. The Neon Demon is entirely about predators, in all shapes and sizes. Reeves’ paedophilic creeper and the psycho-sexual urges he practically spells out in dialogue at one point to Dean; Nivola’s immediate obsession with Jesse on the catwalk, seeing her as a means to an end, as indeed does Desmond Harrington’s elite photographer Jack, happy to fire lesser models on the spot and calmly tell Jesse to strip naked before his camera. This doesn’t even factor in Malone’s Ruby and her lesbian desires or the cold predatory instincts of Heathcote’s Gigi & Lee’s Sarah. Nobody cares Jesse is, technically, a minor. Everyone is happy and willing to exploit her.
Refn spells out this with the bizarre moment involving the tiger inside Jesse’s room in the motel, as on the nose a metaphor as you can imagine. Later, in the grand house where Jesse is confronted by the devils of her nature, statues of various predatory animals stand. Visually, with Refn’s deep reds contrasted with white purity and creeping darkness, his portrait is consistently one of a woman being steadily consumed by a heartless industry which values only artifice. Jesse ends up believing her own hype, fashioning herself into that indefinable *something* no one can quantify, but Refn seems to want her punished for such lofty egotism. Perhaps that’s his message: be careful what you wish for.
Many have accused The Neon Demon of having zero substance behind the cool style but that doesn’t seem entirely fair to me. There’s a great deal of metaphor and subtext, even extending to Cliff Martinez’s astonishing score, which fuses a retro-synthetic bass with the twinkling fall of diamonds on glass which represents the hollow nature of the industry Refn is exploring. It’s an extraordinary composition which sits alongside Refn’s frequently arresting, dangerously beautiful and abstract visual palette. Every shot in The Neon Demon is considered and interesting.
If it’s vacuous, however, then that surely is the point. Refn intentionally doesn’t seem to invest the characters with any sense of depth or meaning beyond how they look, precisely because they have stripped all of that away. Not even Jesse is likeable, even at the start when she’s green and willowy. The only person with any soul is Dean and he swiftly is discarded when Jesse starts to buy into what she looks like. She even tells him “I’m pretty, and pretty will get me far” or words to that effect. On a surface level, Refn’s film is shallow but its shallow because that’s the mirror. It’s a film which reflects the soulless lives of these often psychotic, sociopathic people who will do anything for beauty.
Despite what the film is saying, and in spite of its ambiguous message about the nature of artifice, The Neon Demon perhaps shouldn’t be considered in such detailed terms. People may get on with it better accepting it’s a pulpy, somewhat exploitation-leaning horror film, even if Nicolas Winding Refn tries to dress it up as arthouse drama. Take a tip from his characters: enjoy it for how it looks, not for what it is.