I took a half-hour bus ride to go see The Neon Demon at 10:05 AM last Saturday, as it was not playing in theaters nearer me and it needed to be seen before too much critical wank and/or hype; yes, we all heard about the Cannes walk-outs, but what does that even mean in the context of Cannes? As a perpetual early arriver, it was a new and unpleasant experience to walk into a theater after all of the previews have played and moments before the movie actually starts, when it’s too dark to see if anyone else is even in the theater, let alone find your seat. That’s a seemingly (and perhaps actually) inane detail, but let it be context for my mindset going into The Neon Demon; the experience of watching this in a mostly empty theater, where the only other audience members are probably men and probably behind you, where the movie itself has a constant undercurrent of sexual violence, makes one acutely aware of one’s 23-year-old female exterior. There was one other person in my line of sight–a legit crazy man in the front row, muttering and gesticulating at the screen. That is, rocking back and forth and repeatedly bringing his hands from his eyes and ears towards the screen. I’d like to believe that in his craziness he had somehow Transcended and was able to commune directly with the screen, that this was a deep ritual of cinematic appreciation and understanding that the relatively sane could only hope to someday achieve. The reality, probably, supported by the increase in the volume and intensity of his muttering every time an especially erotically charged scene occurred, is that he was jacking off.
Regardless: let us try to retroactively commune with the screen and come up with something to say about The Neon Demon other than “I was super into the whole neon and synth Aesthetic,” although I was super into the whole neon and synth Aesthetic and it was exactly what I wanted from the director of Drive and Bronson.
(In fact, I probably believe that, if not all movies, certainly more movies should aspire to look like Duran Duran music videos.)
What we have to say may be super obvious; we’ve pretty intentionally avoided reading any other reviews and thinkpieces of the movie so that we can still delude ourselves into thinking that this is a brilliant and unique interpretation. It may also be revealing of some unflattering internalized misogyny?
How are beautiful women supposed to talk about their beauty? Unfortunately, this is not a question I’ve ever had to personally consider, and so I don’t have too much sympathy for the beautiful women in question, but still: we, society, the Patriarchy, whomever, do put them in a bind.
My best guess is that we want an effortlessly beautiful woman who remains unaware of her own beauty. But should we encounter such a woman, we are overwhelmed with the desire to let her in on the secret, thus making her self-aware. So such a woman cannot exist for long.
(It is, partly, the logical paradox presented by One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”–the song’s subject doesn’t know she’s beautiful, which is 1D claims, what makes her beautiful, but as soon she hears this song, she will know she’s beautiful, so does she then cease to be beautiful? Is that the power of One Direction?)
In any case, the unaware don’t try to become models or actresses, people who are expected to talk about their beauty without completely pissing off the hideous masses. And we need to be appeased; we need to be made to feel okay about our own monstrous visages. So we get to hear about how hard it is to be beautiful in the public eye: the grueling workouts and ludicrous diets required to maintain that beauty, the difficulty of having a private life without getting hounded by the paparazzi, the desire to be seen as a person rather than a sex object, etc. It’s never enough, and in fact makes us resent them more for their ungratefulness (to whom, it’s not exactly clear).
But what do we want to hear? Certainly not “I’m just a regular girl who eats pizza and binge-watches TV” because if that’s true, there’s no hope for the rest of us, and if it’s not, it seems disingenuous and pandering. Certainly not “I had a bunch of work done to look like this” because we have this weird visceral disgust and/or pity for anyone who subjects themselves to cosmetic surgery, even if it’s so well-done that we wouldn’t have known it wasn’t natural. Right, natural. So I guess it’s not that weird–it’s this belief in the inherent and moral value of the authentic, but it’s less clear how that’s defined. At what point does the effort put into beauty—the clothes, the make-up, the hairstyles, the diets, the work-outs—cross from natural to “natural” to artificial? From simply a reflection of one’s inner beauty to shallowness, vapidity, vanity?
I have no answers to these questions, only the completely misguided conviction that if I were to suddenly become a beautiful celebrity, I would be more adept at providing charmingly self-aware interviews in women’s magazines than the current crop. The Neon Demon doesn’t really have answers to these questions either, but it does provide the opportunity to think about them. It struck me that The Neon Demon is basically an aesthetically superior, feature-length version of those Inside Amy Schumer sketches with, like, four women acting out increasingly absurd versions of these specifically gendered forms of self-deprecation until a fifth woman reacts “healthily”—i.e. unapologetically—and violence ensues. Although as I rewatch the sketches in question, it looks like the violence is against themselves or innocent bystanders rather than the woman who dares to break free from social norms; not so in The Neon Demon.
Okay, so the basic plot of The Neon Demon, paraphrased from Wikipedia: Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old aspiring model who is new to LA. Ruby (Jena Malone), the makeup artist at Jesse’s first shoot, takes Jesse under her wing and introduces her to fellow models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). Jesse quickly and seemingly effortlessly moves her way up in the modeling world, engendering Sarah and Gigi’s jealousy and resentment. Eventually, the three (somewhat) older women wind up killing and eating Jesse.
On the surface, this may seem like a fairly standard and somewhat tired allegory for the vampiric nature of Hollywood/the modeling industry, with its consumption of youth. And perhaps it actually is. But I think we only read it that way because we have expectations for these types of stories:
“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
An innocent, beautiful Girl from a small town/the Midwest/the country comes to the Big City. Maybe she’s fleeing something, maybe she’s desperate, maybe she’s pursuing a Big Dream. The City People take advantage, the Girl is corrupted, the Dream is dashed, and isn’t it horrible to be a woman in a sex and beauty obsessed society? It’s easy to get tricked into believing that this, too, is the narrative of The Neon Demon, with Jesse’s wholesome, ethereal Free People model looks and costuming, the implied tragic backstory of her dead parents, and her soft, earnest voice talking about the big sky back in Georgia. Especially contrasted with the overwhelming predatoriness of everyone around her—the amateur photographer she meets online who takes pictures of her posed like a murder victim and covered in fake blood, the make-up artist with a clear sapphic interest in her, the agent who “would never call [her] fat,” the sleazy hotel manager, a literal cougar that gets into her room, etc.
And, of course, the casting of Elle Fanning is a case of finding the perfect person at the perfect time for the role. The softness of her looks is super key. Her beauty isn’t one of edges and stark contrasts; this role couldn’t have worked with, say, a brunette. It’s how we can believe that Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee might feel threatened by her; both are gorgeous and not even necessarily less gorgeous than Fanning, but they’re not as “angelic” in their beauty. And I mean, in terms of looks and acting ability, Fanning may not be singular–which is not to denigrate her looks or acting ability, but isn’t the whole point of having a modeling and acting industry that everyone is replaceable? Or rather, that a good enough actor or model can fit any mold? However, combine her looks and acting ability with the meta-narrative of Elle Fanning, younger sister of beloved American treasure Dakota Fanning1, literal Disney princess on the big screen, figurative Disney princess on the red carpet, and suddenly you have an audience that is going to feel goodwill and protectiveness towards her character before she even says a thing.
BUT: listen to what Jesse is actually saying and watch what she is (and isn’t) doing. Imagine this coming from anyone with slightly sharper cheekbones or straighter hair, and suddenly a lot of her dialogue comes across as, well, bitchy at best, inhuman at worst.
Within the narrative of the movie, Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi might not be defined by much more than Lust, Desperation, and Insecurity, respectively, but those are all traits that are conventionally considered as inherent to the Human Experience. Those are also all traits that Jesse lacks; if you want to read this in the supernatural light that the title and some of the imagery of the movie implies, the climactic act of violence can be seen as humans ridding the world of an abomination—or mortals consuming a god, depending on your perspective—rather than the virgin sacrifice we’re tricked into seeing by all of the narratives that have come before.
Because there is a sense of the monstrous in Jesse’s ability to achieve success without making any personal sacrifices. The eternal questions, repeated throughout the movie in various forms, “Who did you fuck? Who are you fucking? What work have you had done?” When we view Jesse as a naive protagonist, we find these questions offensive and disgusting on her behalf, but think about them in the context of daily life: imagine the people who get opportunities handed to them as a reward for existing, without having to put in any effort or do anything they might consider unsavory2. We hate these people. We at least want these people to make some pretense of having earned their positions, to offer an excuse that will make us feel better about ourselves, to seem human in the flawed and grasping sense of the word.
Jesse refuses to play this game. She doesn’t profusely thank anyone for considering her to be in their show, she just offers us a small smile as she claims her birthright. She doesn’t console Gigi with the details of her beauty regimen or the work she puts into looking the way she does despite not having “work done,” because there is no such work. She doesn’t console Sarah with the hardships of being the center of attention, because there are no such hardships. She does say something to the effect of “you did a great job out there” after the audition in which she gets cast over Sarah, but both parties recognize the emptiness of these words. Similarly with Jesse complimenting Gigi’s makeup before the runway show in which she gets asked to do the closing number over Gigi. There is probably something feminist in this unapologetic awareness of one’s physical beauty, but as discussed in the previous section, it is still somehow offputting.
Sex is never even on the table. We only see Jesse acting “sexual” in Ruby’s fantasies; even when she’s naked and being intimately slathered in gold paint for a photoshoot, she’s a passive work of art rather than an active participant. Because Jesse’s goal is to be Seen, to exist as a Work of Art, and this means being worshipped at a distance. Impossible, if she allows herself to be fucked and made flesh. Part of this informs Jesse’s rejection of her photographer boyfriend after her moment of Transcendence at the runway show (more on that shortly). His claim of liking her for her inner beauty is 1) totally disingenuous—as pointed out by the designer, would he even have noticed her in the first place if not for her looks?—and 2) means that he is not Seeing her, because she is her physical appearance and this makes us uncomfortable.
(Certainly whilst watching and immediately afterwards, I was like, “But who are you? What’s your deal outside of your looks?” when the answer is: no one. Our normal sense of human character does not apply here, probably, as it doesn’t apply to depictions of gods or—to be on the nose about it—demons.)
Anyway, I love a good Becoming scene. The whole trippy sequence at the runway show with the neon lights (triangles = moon = all-seeing eye, in addition to just looking super fucking cool) and the reflections making out with each other was very effective and perhaps brings to mind the sort of scene in myths where the god in disguise sheds his mortal form like a cloak. Note that post-Becoming, gone are the floaty white dresses and soft curls—everything becomes shiny and metallic—but this isn’t corruption so much as a revelation, as Jesse achieves full self-awareness.
But to come back to the sexuality aspect: well, YMMV on the “healthiness” or “legitimacy” of asexuality—we are not really qualified to go into that for a variety of reasons, the foremost probably being our inability to even define “healthiness” or “legitimacy” in any satisfactory or consistent manner—but I don’t know, it seems reasonable to assume that Nicolas Winding Refn views sex as an inextricable aspect of the human condition. And so Jesse’s virginity—should we interpret this as innocence/purity that make her a more sympathetic eventual victim? Or is it her inhuman perfection, a complete lack of interest in ~the pleasures of the flesh~, something similar to the terrifying chastity of Diana/Artemis?
(And after all, if her flesh is the only perfect flesh, who could possibly be worthy of partaking in it? We only see her kissing her own reflection.)
Maybe this makes some sense out of the corpse-fucking3 scene, apart from the sheer shock value factor. It’s like…probably saying something about the objectification of women that would be less muddled if the character fucking the corpse were a man, but either way more or way less offensive (hard to say). We see Ruby imagining a version of Jesse that looks like Jesse but acts nothing like the Jesse we’ve been watching up until that point, and the way to best ensure that the audience isn’t also titillated by this is to insert a taboo like necrophilia, I guess? To really get across how perverse it is, and how it renders her Transcendent beauty common to bring it back down to the fleshly domain.
(But ughhhhh, dudes are still probably going to jack off to that scene.)
In the beginning, Gigi asks, “Are you food or are you sex?” Jesse wants to be neither, but somehow manages to end up as both. And we’re not sure whether that’s a tragedy or a sort of fucked up triumph for the mortal realm.
1. Notably, Dakota Fanning would not have been as perfect casting—four years ago, when she was the same age Elle is now, she had already been a villain in the Twilight franchise and drug-addicted rock star—i.e. a “bad girl”—in The Runaways. Puberty had made her more angular, less cherubic. Besides, the child star Dakota Fanning was known for playing precocious children—and not in the Chloe Grace Moretz “I’m a young girl speaking like an adult male, isn’t that edgy and hilarious?” way, but in a self-possessed and preternaturally aware, wise-beyond-her-years way, where the sense that she could take care of herself made the audience paradoxically feel more protective of her, and, I think, not sexualize her the way we did the Olsen twins. Perhaps I’m just intentionally forgetting a well-publicized countdown to her 18th birthday. I hope not. ^
2. Of course, in the modeling industry, “effort” and “unsavoriness” carries the taint of misogyny/exploitation/The Patriarchy to the extreme, so it’s easier to side with passive beauty.^
3. I assume this is what triggered most of the walk-outs? Which I don’t super get. For me, the extended scene of Gigi dry-heaving was much more viscerally uncomfortable to watch because…emetophobia. Whereas even if you have an intense moral or taste-based objection to the depicton of necrophilia, is it actually so hard to watch that you have to walk out? Or are you just walking out to Make A Point? Especially since that means you’ve stayed long enough to watch the scene of the sleazy hotel manager fellating Jesse with a knife, which I would think is, again, more viscerally uncomfortable to watch because it speaks to a more real fear, even if it does turn out to be a dream sequence.^