It’s fashion month and this film will definitely have you celebrating it. The Neon Demon by Nicolas Winding Refn [Drive, Only God Forgives] has stunning cinematography, and its star, Elle Fanning [Maleficent, Super 8] is picture perfect in every shot. The film got mixed reviews in the festival circuit, but I personally am a big fan. The film incorporates themes of the true cost of beauty, sacrifice, cannibalism, witchcraft, rape and necrophilia. To me it was giallo-lite, being as my only giallo reference is The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. It could also be compared to Black Swan, but featuring models. What a treat this close to Halloween.
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Jesse [Fanning] is an underage orphan who runs away to LA to become a model. A real unique story, right? However, once she is booked to an agency, the industry starts to fall at her feet. She takes jobs from veteran models, books special photoshoots and becomes the IT designer’s muse. Of course, other models become viciously jealous.
Ruby [Jena Malone], a seemingly friendly makeup artist, befriends Jesse and tries to make her feel safe in the dangerous city of angels. Ruby takes Jesse on the town and introduces her to her friends, Gigi [Bella Heathcote] who’s obsessed with going under the knife as a way to achieve perfection, and Sara [Abbey Lee] who seems the current queen bee. Both models are desperate to protect their place in the industry, for the limited time that they have it. Sara speaks out on behalf of all the women at the party, “How high can she climb, and is it higher than me?”
The answer is simply, yes. Jesse is on a roll and gets booked for a major runway show. Sara gets rejected at the same casting, and smashes a mirror. She asks Jesse, “People see you, they notice. Do you know how lucky you are? What does it feel like?” Jesse responds, “It’s everything.”
Kind of a ballsy move there, Jesse.
Sara lunges at her causing Jesse to slash her hand on the broken glass, which Sara then proceeds to grab and suck blood from. It’s the film’s first foray into what’s yet to come.
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Jesse is staying at a dingy motel in Pasadena, where the manager happens to be a predatory Keanu Reeves. He rents to underage girls so that he can sneak into their units and rape them later (!). In fear, Jesse calls Ruby and goes to her place for refuge. Ruby has a different agenda, though— she’s obsessed with Jesse. After she gets out of the shower Ruby pounces on her, only to be thrown off of the bed. It is then that she decides that something sinister must be done. Ruby moonlights at a funeral home doing cosmetics on the deceased, and acts out her sexual fantasies for Jesse on a corpse.
Jesse finds herself alone in the mansion and takes a stroll outside by the empty inground pool and finds Ruby home from work, with Sara and Gigi in tow. Jesse begins to dig herself in a narcissistic hole around these desperate and self-conscious girls. She proclaims, “I know what I look like…what’s wrong with that anyway? Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves, and even starve— hoping one day they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.”
Jesse has become too big for her britches, and she must die. They push her into the pool and watch the life leave her eyes— as she twitches with her limbs askew. The trio bathes in Jesse’s blood, and they consume her. Human sacrifice in historic occult theory is similar to this. It is known as an ancient magical principle that blood is the source of energy and power of a living thing, and it is at its peak when the victim is young— and a virgin.
This ritual affects each of the women differently, with Sara reigning supreme. She accompanies Gigi to one of her photoshoots and ends up participating. During the shoot, Gigi runs to the bathroom and retches, desperate to get Jesse out of her. She regurgitates an eyeball, and Sara pops it into her mouth as to not waste any of their sacrifice’s power. Gigi abruptly stabs herself and bleeds out, and Sara returns to the shoot and slays. The End. Oh snap!
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I enjoyed this movie because I like disturbing things. I like exploring the full spectrum of humanity.There is a pyramid with 4 triangles that appears as a motif, and I believe it represents each character and the aspect of life they manifest. In the film Jesse states that she’s not really great at anything, but that she knows she’s pretty–and that she can make money off of pretty (beauty). Gigi never liked the way she looked, and transformed her body into a large piece of plastic to ensure her value (death).  Sara was the model that no longer felt her appearance was special, so she felt the aching hunger to make herself seen again (power). Ruby just wanted to be loved (lust). Am I concocting meaning out of nothing? Maybe, but this stuck out to me each time I screened the film.
The Neon Demon obviously holds a lot of shock value, but what is it saying about our society–and the male writer? It’s no secret that a large amount of a woman’s worth is still based on appearance, but how many would go as far as murder and consumption of human flesh? Refn isn’t exactly known for making feminist movies, and this one is no different. He portrays these women as objects to consume, with their only value and purpose as beautiful things. I can’t help but wonder if the fashion world is really like this?
The film is very superficial.  I have no qualms saying that flatly. There is no character development other than the quest to be the fairest of them all–or the fairest’s girlfriend. I have no doubt that there may be some women out there who completely relate to the air of desperation that runs through Neon Demon, but I don’t feel that with a writer like Refn it could even go much deeper to show an understanding of women as people. His films are historically patriarchal, and view women as the rest of the world does— second rate.  Aesthetically, the film is beautiful, and all the right kinds of messed up, however I think Refn could have done a better job of fleshing out the characters, which would have added some much needed depth as well.
Nevertheless, this is definitely worth a watch. You can find the full film on Amazon and VUDU.
Gabrielle Helmin-Clazmer
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