Movies are for people who like to look at other people, but The Neon Demon is for people who like to look at women. Your gaze doesn’t need to be sexual, but you’ve got to have one. The characters in the film consist of fashion models, photographers, a makeup artist, and a high-level agent, with only a few plebeians—an inadequate suitor and a motel manager—to sully the couture atmosphere they’ve conjured. When a new girl arrives, the rest make sport of sizing her up. They calculate what jobs she might take from them, or what unflattering comments she might provoke about their age. The whole time, they’re looking right at her, and so is the camera, which hangs on the character’s faces with a pointed stillness. Most films have a line of dialogue that doubles as a mission statement. You get one from Neon Demon in its second scene. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is wiping stage blood off her arm when makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) catches herself in the act. She apologizes for the movie you’re about to see. “Am I staring?”
With The Neon Demon, you’d rather stare than listen. “Plastics is just good grooming,” “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” “Anything worth having hurts a little.” The last line is in reference to a woman who’s had more than 15 cosmetic surgeries, and is read with the same empty pithiness of Sex and the City dialogue. Neon Demon‘s real potency is not in its verbal jabs, but in its pictorial manner—the director is Nicholas Winding Refn, who likes to watch, and his eye is painterly, by which I mean that he doesn’t let his subjects move. An opening shot poses Jesse on a couch, with the floor and the windows framing her within a series of false prosceniums. Then she joins her new friends at a club, which plays out like a flicker film instead; the lights flash on and off, but the people inside them are frozen. Refn even carries his sense of stillness over to the audio track. The first scene between Jesse and Ruby—the “Am I staring?” scene—has the deafening silence of room tone over every word. Other sequences are staged like photographs, but each one is undercut by disquieting motion: a line of models in their underwear being judged by scarcely audible executives, or a gracefully sleeping woman being stalked by an intruder in her shrouded bedroom. The whole world of Refn’s film is a premium-cable fashion shoot. His flourish is to cover it with blood, and his fetish is the perverse rhythm that results. The film is a Terry Richardson print that’s been slathered in gore and stationed under a strobe light.
The Neon Demon is about the way that the entertainment industry cannibalizes the lives of its women by turning them against their own selves and one another, but it’s not a critique so much as it’s an example. It evokes fashionably-feminine culture on the inside and the out. The opening credits play out on a textile fabric that’s marked by an “N.W.R.” in the spirit of fashion tags. The closing credits are an It Girl-music video (Sia) that’s been emblazoned with a heart. And the story structure bases itself on the language of fairy tales: Jesse is the virginal princess left behind by dead parents, now hoping to Star Is Born her way to the top. Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) have granite faces that look battle tested in comparison, which makes them the villainous stepsisters. Christina Hendricks plays an ad agent who connects Jesse to her greatest opportunities—the godmother. Karl Glusman plays the smitten young man who spotted Jesse first—the aspiring prince. Desmond Harrington plays the lascivious photographer who demands that Jesse strip before him—the domineering king. And Keanu Reeves plays the motel manager who does the sneaking in the bedrooms—the dragon.
One of the primary tenets of fairy tales is that the heroine is a fair-skinned, soft-featured, sexually unattainable feminine ideal, and the conceptual joke of The Neon Demon is that if such a woman arrived on the Los Angeles fashion scene, everyone within it would respond by saying, “Oh, that bitch.” Fanning’s dollish looks are the focus of the compositions, of the other characters in the movie, and of our own eyes (by the time the movie ends, you’ll know exactly how big her pupils are.) Refn allows his film to proceed based on the anxieties that her beauty provokes in everyone else. They fear that she signals that their time is up; we fear that she will become one of them by the time she turns 22. Both Fanning and her character harden their respective performances as the movie continues on, aware of their power within such a dynamic. She speaks her dialogue more curtly, and angles her facial expressions more coldly. We’re watching her physically and gesturally evolve into her position as the next apex predator of the scene. We’re watching her swing between the poles: between natural beauty and a curated look, between unreserved kindness and calculated malice, between virginity and sex. Refn’s also a mannered formalist, so he codes the world around her to match that evolution. During her breakout fashion shoot, Jesse is photographed in a room of unblemished white. She’s coerced into taking her clothes off, then she’s slathered in gold body paint. The princess becomes a queen, the Madonna is corrupted, the suitors and friends get left behind, and the snow-white background turns pure black.
These anxieties overwhelm the movie, then the narrative overwhelms them back. Ephemeral feelings and worries morph into literal vampirism and cannibalism. One of the women wears lipstick that’s named “red rum,” and wonders where that name comes from, then notes that all lipsticks are named after either food or sex—the unacknowledged punchline is that its actual meaning (murder) will soon intersect with them both (one of the other primary tenets of classical fairy tales is that people get eaten.) Refn elides most of the mythology, though, preferring to let the murderous stuff happen outside the sight lines of his unmoving images. More often we see the aftereffects. There’s a downed model with blood trickling from her mouth, or a repulsed victimizer retching up her ill-gotten gains. The framing is always impressively taut—the cinematography is by Natasha Braier—but it’s also recognizable. Refn bites pieces and images from the stories that inform the action itself: Cat People; Un Chien Andalou; Romeo and Juliet; folk tales about Elizabeth Bathory; Thief; Dario Argento movies; T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G; Dracula; Lolita; Mulholland Drive; and that’s limiting it to the obvious ones.
Each of these romanticized reference points gets deliberately curdled by his gaze. The search is for visual contrasts that are depraved enough to represent all the pain that’s bound up in the products of entertainment industries—for images that evoke the violent competition that’s bred, or the insecurity forced onto any woman who participates, or the deliberate insensitivity of gatekeepers, or the necessary prejudices regarding appearance, or the innumerable women left behind. Refn lasciviously pans up and down women in a shower, barely stopping to notice the blood that’s rolling off their breasts. He stages a masturbation sequence inside of a morgue, intercutting a sexual ideal with decomposing flesh. It’s an obvious suggestion to say that these industries creates sex fantasies. What The Neon Demon yearns toward, to varying degrees of success, is the status of counterpoint. It’s a sex nightmare instead. Try not to stare.
THE NEON DEMON. RATED R. OPENS 6.24.