(CW: Talk of rape and strong anti-woman violence; spoilers for The Neon Demon)
On Friday, Jezebel’s Bobby Finger posted a piece on Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film The Neon Demon titled, straightforwardly enough, Fuck The Neon Demon. After watching the movie Thursday night, I am here to say: fuck The Neon Demon, indeed. The Neon Demon is one of the most condescending, woman-hating, moralistic, yet intrinsically shallow films I’ve ever seen. It’s Refn trying his very, very hardest to be a Bad Boy With A Message. It’s exhausting, and it’s terrible.
From the very first shot of the film – Elle Fanning’s Jessie draped on a couch, blood pouring from a cut on her neck – we understand exactly what the message of the entire rest of the film will be. What’s the difference between real violence and performative violence? Well, a lot, but the film refuses to acknowledge its own real violence – I’ll get to that. Isn’t fashion actually violence against women? Well, maybe, but the film doesn’t care to actually engage in any intellectual arguments. After Jessie’s photoshoot, she meets Ruby (Jena Malone, trying her goddamn best), a makeup artist who positions herself as Jessie’s new best gal pal – Jessie is 16, new in L.A., without her parents, and living in a seedy Pasadena motel managed by Keanu Reeves. There’s a nondescript Boy, who is nice and might love her, but once Jessie realizes she is Pretty, she doesn’t need him anymore.
There are also other models, including Sarah (Abbey Lee, who I loved as a model and now love as an actress), but they’re not as Pretty and don’t have The Thing that Jessie, apparently, despite not having any personality to speak of, has in spades. Seriously, it’s like The Room – everyone keeps talking about how Lisa is the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world, leaving the entire audience wondering, “….Her?” No offense to Elle Fanning, who is very good given the almost nothing she gets to do in the film, but Jessie is this Symbol of Prettiness and Womanhood, floating around in Forever 21 dresses while her model rivals wear revealing clothes and lots of makeup, a mere cypher of womanhood, a not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman who is crowned the new It Girl for literally no reason. Perhaps this is Refn’s point – a not-subtle joke about how models might actually be boring – but then it’s just unnecessarily cruel to Jessie. Not that Refn cares about being cruel to his female characters – for all its grandstanding about how narcissistic the fashion industry, and those engaged in it, are, The Neon Demon comes down hardest on Gigi (Bella Heathcoate), a model who – gasp – has had plastic surgery on her face. Gigi is portrayed as uniformly stupid, selfish, and “unnaturally” beautiful, which, given the intense unnatural, neon beauty that makes up the film’s (admittedly often gorgeous) photography, you’d think Refn would be interested in. Nope – instead, Gigi is paraded in front of onlookers while a designer talks about how much more beautiful Jessie is because she’s natural. Got it.
After Jessie’s inevitable triumph at a fashion show (where she makes out with herself in the mirror of a neon triangle temple – get it, models are narcissists), she has a maybe-dream where Keanu breaks into her motel room and forces her to fellate a knife (remember folks, she’s supposed to be 16 years old), then another maybe-it-happens-maybe-it-doesn’t scene where he goes next door and rapes a 13-year-old runaway, possibly killing her: “That real Lolita shit,” he calls it. Gross. Wouldn’t it be great if Jessie killed him? Nah, she calls Ruby and runs over to her place, a huge, inexplicable mansion, where, after showering, Ruby also tries to rape her, stopping only when Jessie kicks her off the bed entirely. So much for girl power, huh. Oh, then because she can’t have sex with Jessie, Ruby goes to her day job at a mortuary and has sex with a blonde corpse instead. This is so stupid it’s barely worth discussing – the crosscuts between Ruby humping a dead body and Jessie sorta-kinda masturbating on Ruby’s couch are so dumb and literal yet clearly are supposed to represent something meaningful.
Ruby is so pissed that Jessie won’t sleep with her, and her friends Sarah and Gigi are so pissed that Jessie is a better model than them, that they finally decide to kill her. This comes right after a monologue by Jessie about how other women are dying to be her (ok I’m not sure if this movie is actually that on the nose, but it’s close), because she’s just so goddamn gorgeous. She’s only murdered once she has come into herself as a sexual being, a beautiful woman who has agency in her life to use that beauty.
The scene where the three women pursue Jessie through the shadowy mansion is actually not bad – a nice homage to 80s Italo-horror. They push her into an empty pool, and then….the next scene is Ruby in a bathtub full of blood, and Sarah and Gigi washing the blood off of each other, filmed through what I can only describe as “leer-cam.” This is supposed to be Ruby’s lesbian gaze, as she watches her friends showering (ugh), but it’s so clearly a creepy male gaze that it’s almost not watchable. Here’s where The Neon Demon really lost me: in its excitement to show so much performative, sexy violence, it completely chickens out on showing any real violence. Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi kill and eat Jessie, but we don’t get to see a single minute of it. Maybe it wasn’t sexy – maybe it was disgusting, and thus not worth showing? These women are only ever watched with the male gaze, so that makes sense. But showing the women, in camaraderie, slaughtering and eating their enemy would have been a statement much stronger than anything in the film. Refn wants to show that these women (all women??) are vicious, but backs away from the one thing that would have driven his point home. These women making a terrible, yet conscious and determined, choice wasn’t worth showing.
(A personal note: Refn couldn’t have made the women witches? Or Satan worshippers? Or something interesting? There’s a potentially interesting scene after the murder where Malone lays on the wooden floor, naked in the moonlight, blood gushing out of her – but as with anything remotely intriguing in the film, Refn backs away from it as soon as possible, never to return to it.)
In the film’s final scene, Sarah and Gigi are at a photoshoot – they’re making it to the top! Gigi, however, doesn’t have as strong a stomach – literally and metaphorically, because that’s the kind of film this is – as Sarah, and freaks out in the middle of the shoot, hides in the bathroom, vomits up blood and a whole eyeball, and disembowels herself with a scissors. Sarah calmly picks the eyeball up from the ground and pops it in her mouth – again, it could have been a really pointed, unforgettable image to have her chew and swallow the eyeball, but instead, it’s in her mouth and then gone in the next shot. The movie ends.
This is a film that apparently decries the shallowness of the fashion industry, but is among the loudest, yet shallowest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that idiot you nkow who has the worst opinions, yet needs to yell about them at every given opportunity. Every gorgeous image is accompanied by the thud of terrible dialogue, or meaningless action. I don’t care about a film having a plot, or likeable characters, but this film has nothing. I realize almost every criticism I level against the film here can be met with the unassailable argument, “But that’s the point.” Maybe it is (though I don’t think all – even many – of these things were done on purpose). But then, my question is: why? Why even make this faux-deep misogynistic morality picture that has such contempt for every single character? It’s beautiful, but as my husband pointed out, it’s beautiful like a fancy car commercial. It’s beauty in the service of nothing.
Refn is more interested in his own “brand” than in making a good film – the “NWR” logo on the opening credits make sure you know just who the auteur is here. Reading his interviews on this press junket make me realize that it’s probably not just the film that is shallow and misogynistic, but Refn himself. Fuck The Neon Demon. Fuck Nicolas Winding Refn. Oh, and definitely fuck that “For Liv” (Refn’s wife) dedication that ends the movie.
I leave you with this quote, from Finger’s aforementioned article, and I would like to request that the final sentence be carved on my tombstone, for people to read for eternity.