The Neon Demon is an uncompromisingly divisive film. The 10th feature film for Nicolas Winding Refn who has made quite a name for himself with his unique style and controversial subject matter. His best known previous film was the extremely well received 2011 film, Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. After returning to the screen with Ryan Gosling in 2013’s Only God Forgives, Refn has now chosen to make a very female-centric film in The Neon Demon. In it there is a stirring commentary on the culture of beauty in our society today.
Refn said that this film was allowing him to be born into the body of a beautiful 16 year old girl. He didn’t know what it was like to be beautiful and with two daughters, the oldest of which is 13, he wanted to explore the idea of beauty and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Some believe that Refn has gone too far and has slipped into the realm of smut in his latest film. I can see where they are coming from since there are some very extreme taboos that he plays with including cannibalism and necrophilia. However, while it certainly is not for everyone, The Neon Demon is a powerful film which has had me pondering its themes of beauty and death ever since I saw it last week.
Like Refn’s previous efforts, The Neon Demon’s plot is quite simple: A young model, Jesse, moves to Los Angeles to enter the world of fashion. Like a fairy tale, she meets success and is quickly swept up into a sinister world in which beauty is the only thing. Elle Fanning plays our young protagonist and she is breathtaking. Wide eyed and clueless early on we watch as she struggles in this balancing act of beauty and death. The fact that everything is coming so naturally and effortlessly for Jesse is torturous for some of the more seasoned models that she is now upstaging.
It is worth noting that Refn is colorblind. He says, “Yes, I’m colorblind, I can’t see mid-colors. That’s why all my films are very contrasted, if it were anything else I couldn’t see it.” I wonder if some of the extreme visual contrast has led to his use of extremes of morality: the clash of love and intense violence, the play between silence and noise, the allure of beauty and the inescapable attraction of death. The Neon Demon is visually seductive but cold at the same time, it is like a beautiful woman that has men clamoring after her yet pays none of them any mind. This has the audience eating out of the palm of Refn’s hand. I’m sure that he wants people to “enjoy” his film, but in the end this is his art, and as such it feels like something that’s not begging for the viewer’s approval.
Bella Heathcote plays Gigi, a fellow model who confesses early on that there isn’t much left on her that is genuine. Through plastic surgery, she has been deliberately manufactured to be beautiful, but all the work in the world cannot slow the steady march towards death. Abbey Lee, an actual supermodel, plays a surprisingly vicious model who is left to chase after the beauty that Jesse emanates so effortlessly. But I think the performance of the film has to go to Jena Malone, as Ruby. She is the first person we meet besides Jesse and immediately makes a connection as a make-up artist. Her performance is so nuanced as she manipulates and enhances her surroundings as elegantly as she does the models who trust her with their beauty.
Refn has continually sought to walk a tightrope in his films. He is not out to please the multitudes. He wants people to walk out of the theater stunned at the beauty and the horror. This is a film that should not be seen by anyone under the age of 21. I would not recommend it to any but the fans of experimental and cerebral cinema. Imagine Stanley Kubrick with all of his technical precision filming a script written by David Lynch with his love for the surreal based on one of the Grimm Brother’s fairy tales.
This is not a Gaspar Noe or Lars Von Trier film in which the shock factor comes first. This is primarily a gorgeous film that plays out in logical ways until the final act in which we get a metaphor for where this mentality will eventually take us. I don’t think that Refn intended to make a film that would cause this kind of discussion. He is more interested in the process. He knows that his films will be divisive and he likes that. What fun would it be otherwise? So often we consume films like we consume fast food. But it is filmmakers like Refn that remind us that film is primarily an art form, not an entertainment medium. Refn is not setting out with an agenda, he is giving form to the inspiration that is flowing out of him.
Back in 2013, while he was on the publicity tour for the film Only God Forgives, Refn said, “It’s like pornography. I’m a pornographer. I make films about what arouses me. What I want to see.” However, there is far more to his films than exploitation and The Neon Demon is no exception. Asked if he felt today’s society was inherently necrophiliac, Refn said “as a metaphor, that’s spot on… Death and beauty has now become one, because the digital revolution has and is in the process of creating an alternative universe that my children and their children will live within almost as if it was a real world”.
From the very first frames of the film we are presented with this surreal mashup of beauty and death as we see Jesse reclining seductively on a couch with her throat slit and streams of blood trailing down her body to the floor where they pool and reflect the ghostly light. Is this a murder scene? Who is that taking pictures? Some twisted serial killer? Crime scene investigator? No, it is a young photographer who I empathized with as I began to watch the film through his eyes.
This idea of death and beauty intermingled has fascinated me. It has made me look at the idea of death differently. If death is the opposite of life and there is no middle ground between the two, then that which is not alive is dead. So when we embrace and even worship technology and the digital world, it is comparable to lying down to sleep with a corpse. That is a powerful and disgusting picture, and we should be revolted at this.
In an interview for The Sound of Young America Refn said:
I do believe that art is an act of violence… Art is meant to penetrate you. Violence doesn’t have to be an act of physical violence, it can be emotional violence, and it doesn’t have to be destructive, which can be a violent emotion, but not necessarily a bad one. The DNA of art and war is very similar. It’s two very powerful forces in our world that takes up a lot of our time; but, where war destroys, art inspires. In my film I always approach violence like sex. It’s all about the build up. The climax itself is a mechanical procedure that we as an audience know is not true, so my job is to make the build up so engaging so that whatever happens in front of us actually affects us, but it only affects us because we believe the emotion before it.
There were scenes of The Neon Demon that I had to turn away from because they were too much for me. And it made me think and I’m still thinking about how much of my life I need to turn away from because it is too much while still recognizing that many are looking for something and in their searching are blindly embracing death.
Refn is not the first to tackle this play between death and beauty. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo comes to mind as we see a man distraught over the death of his lover who desperately tries to rebuild her beauty on top of another woman. He is yearning after the dead, worshiping that which he has lost. As he follows this necrophiliac desire he dismisses the living woman who actually cares for him and wants to love him.
The Neon Demon is centered around the thought that “beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Having a daughter myself, I am on board with how that can quickly turn into a horror story. Refn continues, “It’s a very, very uncomfortable thing to even think about it. I think there is something very terrifying in thinking the world can only be about beauty.”
Edgar Allan Poe famously said, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” For Poe, it was not a macabre fascination with death. He was quite fond of women, both romantically and platonically, but he could not escape the horrors of the death of his mother and wife. He longed for them and the security they brought him. However, this longing turned into an unhealthy obsession and women became these porcelain objects of beauty to admire and pine after, and frighteningly enough, their death became even more poetic.