What to say about The Neon Demon?
See, this is a film that you have to be careful about discussing. From the moment that it premiered at Cannes last year, The Neon Demon was the love-it-or-hate-it film of 2016.
Those of us that loved The Neon Demon really, really loved it.
And those that hated it — well, let’s just say that they really, really hated it. They complained that The Neon Demon was exploitive. They found the subject matter to be sordid. They accused the movie of being both pretentious and ultimately pointless. The plot made no sense, they complained. The film was overlong and featured about a handful of false endings. It almost seemed as if Nicholas Winding Refn was taunting anyone who expected him to make a typical melodrama about life in Hollywood.
All of that is true but, honestly, what were these people expecting? As a result of the success of Drive, many people have made the mistake of thinking that Nicholas Winding Refn is a mainstream director. He’s not. Refn is a provocateur. He is a director who often dares his audience to walk away. In The Neon Demon, each false ending challenges the audience’s assumption about how a story — any story — should end. Some people, I’m sure, would complain that Refn is all style and no substance. However, The Neon Demon is about a world where one’s worth is determined by their style. Style is substance. The world of The Neon Demon may be empty but the film is not.
For all the debate about the film’s deeper themes (or lack of them), The Neon Demon‘s story is a fairly simple and deliberately familiar one. A teenage runaway comes to Hollywood, finds some success as a model, and discovers that the world of show business is not as romantic as she may have initially believed. When we first see Jesse (Elle Fanning), she’s posing for her boyfriend and she’s pretending to be dead. Death, beauty, and sex go hand-in-hand in The Neon Demon.
Jesse’s an interesting character, one who constantly challenges our assumptions. At first, Jesse seems like a typical innocent. She’s a virgin who is so introverted that she can barely carry on a conversation. She lives in a cheap apartment, under the menacing gaze of her sleazy landlord (Keanu Reeves, having fun playing his skeezy character). She has a boyfriend and on their dates, she tells him about how she’s always dreamed of being a star. It’s only as the film progresses that you start to realize how little you actually know about Jesse. That she’s a runway is implied early on. We never learn what led to her running away. In fact, we learn next to nothing about who she was before she appeared in Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, Jesse is everything that the fashion industry values. She’s beautiful and, even more importantly, she’s young. We watch as Jesse goes to a casting call and we’re struck by the blank-look on her face. We wonder if there’s anything going on underneath the surface. Jesse has hallucinations, seeing a shining triangle and kissing her own reflection. Someone asks her what it’s like to be desired. She replies, “It’s everything.”
Jesse befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who lives in a gigantic mansion, overlooking an empty swimming pool. When Ruby isn’t working in the fashion industry, she works at a morgue, applying makeup to corpses and occasionally engaging in necrophilia. She makes the dead beautiful so that they can be buried looking their best. Again, beauty and death are intertwined throughout The Neon Demon.
Ruby has two other friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). They’re both models, struggling to maintain their careers even as younger models, like Jesse, continue to flood into Los Angeles. Gigi has had so much cosmetic surgery that none of her original features remain. Gigi is neurotic and fearful. Sarah, on the other hand, is confident and sarcastic. When asked what she did the last time another model screwed her out of a job, Sarah calmly replies, “I ate her.”
Sarah isn’t necessarily joking either. Without giving too much away, The Neon Demon features, among other things, a character eating an eyeball that another character has just thrown up. Not surprisingly for a Refn film, there’s a lot of blood in The Neon Demon. It’s a film that opens with fake blood and ends with very real blood.
Combining the visual sense of Dario Argento with the thematic concerns of Jean Rollin, The Neon Demon is a triumph of pure style. The visuals are so strong that it’s impossible to look away, even when the film’s themes are deliberately obscure. The Neon Demon is a surreal journey into the dark side of Hollywood, a mixture of ennui, alienation, decadence, and sacrifice. It may not always make sense but it’s always fascinating to watch.
Personally, I think The Neon Demon would make a great double feature with La La Land. Two triumphs of style, two very different views of Los Angeles.