A model lies on a white couch, blood dripping from her neck and pooling onto the floor below. Like a broken doll, her porcelain face remains eerily still, candy colored lips agape and face speckled with gems. With a slow zoom and repeated cuts between the subject and the voyeur behind the camera, we build suspense as to whether or not this is snuff. In the blink of an eye the couch is empty, but the blood remains. We cut to the same model wiping off the makeup in a mirror.
Her name is Jesse.
She’s a stereotypical small town girl who moves out to Hollywood with hopes of making it big, but with an unsentimental twist: she’s 16, parentless, and deeply aware that she has no talent. She is, however, pretty. And in her words, “pretty can make money.” Jesse knows her looks are the only thing she has going for her and she’s content with that. But there’s something about Jesse (and how she is portrayed by the by indelible Elle Fanning) that makes this blunt self-awareness feel like the first step into a far more nuanced idea.
On the surface, The Neon Demon is overt social commentary, rife with prose and metaphor about narcissism, beauty, and death. And even though it’s more aesthetically macabre than The Cremaster Cycle, The Neon Demon is ultimately aimed at the ways we breed crippling insecurity in not just the fashion industry, but our culture at large. Starting with the unfeasible standards that come from mixed messaging.
The mixed message in this case being both the deification and subjugation of young women. We want them sexually, yet they must be pure. We celebrate them, yet they can never express a desire to be celebrated. We want to be them, yet we revile them. This contradiction is so devastating as a societal expectation because it is subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) used to keep girls powerless. For if there is always some way they are doing something wrong, they are always destined to fail. There is no way to “win” either. And if they are constantly able to be criticized, then they are able to be controlled and subjugated. But Jesse actually embodies a new twist of that contradiction, for instead of the madonna and the whore motif, Refn uses imagery to portray Jesse as both Virgin Mary and... Jesus Christ. A choice that highlights a perhaps unprecedented flipside to the subjugation of mixed messaging, and that is:
Jesse is the brand new toy that everyone wants to play with, but no one can. She is at once the epitome of innocence and control. She seems untouchable. And in the world of Hollywood and the appearance-based fashion industry, Jesse is what cannot be: she’s confident in her features. She knows that she is what the other girls strive to be. She isn’t riddled with insecurities, has no need for artificial beauty, and isn’t trying to sleep her way to the top. And in due time we realize that because of this, she cannot be allowed to exist.
Everything about society tells us to hate her. I could hear the groans and audible eye rolls of the audience behind me when Jesse metamorphosed from pretty-faced door mat to self-aware super babe. Literal heckling of “oh, she’s a bitch now,” when she turned away her “boyfriend” at the door of her motel room, a man who seemed like a “nice guy,” but may or may not be of a sound age to pal around with and take photos of a 16-year-old. Refn is clearly baiting us with the degrees of permissive likability here. Boyfriend stands up to both the designer and Kreepy Keanu (whether or not Jesse asked him to on either occasion), but the film is absolutely after us making that comparison. Honestly, any dude in that movie shines next to the loathsomeness that is Kreepy Keanu -- he is not an example to be proud of (and big props to Keanu Reeves, who I love, but this one of the few times I felt I genuinely did not “recognize” his persona as I watched him). The film is constantly playing with the audience: “you really don’t like this, but why?”
And further to the point what does Jesse owe Boyfriend? What about her main competition GiGi and Sarah, or her makeup artist, Ruby? Or any of the people in this movie? Everyone is out to get something from her. She doesn’t owe anybody anything because she is a literal projection of what everyone wants. And that is recognized as true power, the very thing that can put Jesse in control of herself. Unfortunately, the problem with power is that people will also do whatever it takes to get it.
The expression of this dynamic, like so much of the film, is quite overt. Spoilers and such, but to do “whatever it takes,” well, what it takes is murder. They kill Jesse. They chase her around, shove her into an empty pool, eat her flesh, and bathe in her blood to be precise. They straight up Bathory her. All to harness her beauty and take away her power. It’s metaphor made literal -- and the great thing about Refn is that he just literalizes all of it. No reason to beat around the bush, just take the metaphor and go for the stark imagery. For what else is there to do with unattainable beauty, but to kill it?
But the point is not about the unattainable, nor the abject cruelty of women against women. No, this film is a study in narcissism, a word that is synonymous with being self absorbed, materialistic, and shallow. And while this definition of narcissism lends itself clearly and vacuously to the characters of GiGi, Sarah, and Ruby, it does not lend itself in the same way to Jesse. For Jesse is a narcissist, but she’s the only one employs it to a kind of healthy existence in the way she sees herself. Is she a “bitch” to the other girls? Sure. Is it likely because they corned her upon her immediate arrival and asked her who she was sleeping with and let their jealousy drip through their teeth? Probably.
Look. I know the second you get into the conundrum of “being a self-empowered bitch” you start going down the Ayn Rand rabbit hole of rational self-interest and worshipping the self. That’s not the point I want to make, nor is the film even holding up such extremes as good values, for there is nothing to “win” in doing so. But I want to point out that the alternative is the “Cinderella” standard. A societal expectation to “Be good and kind and innocent and never do a bad thing, even to bad people and then you’ll be an acceptable person.” Except that’s not true at all because then you’d be a prude the second a guy gets you one on one. Every woman has to find their space within the fold and try to break down the expectation of the good girl vs. bad girl dichotomy. Thus the “bitchiness” of Jesse is more reflective of the uneasy bargain all women have to negotiate in a world full of mixed-messages and double standards that fabricate an impossible ideal.
In a strange way, Jesse is the needed confidence of youth. That first time we look in a mirror and see ourselves as something more than a child. That moment when we steal our mother’s makeup or try on her heels or start dressing up for any even slightly special occasion. The first time someone refers to you as beautiful and it actually means something. But it also understands how fleeting that moment is. Because as soon as you look in the mirror and see something you like in the reflection, you immediately start noticing all of things you don’t and wonder how you can change them.
The film of course runs rampant with that notion. GiGi refers to getting plastic surgery as going to the body shop, reducing it to a simple check up or regular maintenance. Sarah runs into the bathroom and sticks her fist through the mirror after an unsuccessful audition that Jesse aces. Both are so dissatisfied with their appearances despite being drop dead gorgeous (pun intended) that they literally kill to improve them. GiGi and Sarah are not so much obsessed with themselves, but more so obsessed with vicissitude and grooming themselves to perfection.
Nicolas Winding Refn has two young daughters who he has referenced in context to this film. He knows that they’re nearing the age of puberty and all of the emotional turmoil that comes with it. Elle Fanning mentioned that the first thing Refn asked her when they began making this film was if she thought of herself as beautiful, a question which she bashfully did not address because she was taught that it was rude to say so.
But why? Why are women put down for admiring themselves? Would having self confidence make a woman too powerful? To The Neon Demon the answers are clear, overt and obvious. Heaven forbid a woman who makes money off her appearance actually feel good about herself. The truth is I look up at Jesse in the theater and think I would kill to have that much confidence about any aspect of my life. GiGi, Sarah and Ruby are as much a part of my own inner monologue as Jesse is. Refn isn’t after criticizing people here, he’s after illuminating the destructive cycles in our minds.
The film makes an argument for the beauty and horror of self indulgence, the same way that we deserve to admire the things about ourselves that make us exceptional. Refn wants the audience to consider that there’s a positive aspect to narcissism that we as a culture should be nurturing, instead of devouring. That the horrors of this industry are mostly the ones we place ourselves, most evident in the way the public regards the fashion industry as the most vapid and self-involved, but aren’t we the ones obsessed with worshipping beauty? Who is actually at fault here?
Our inability to recognize our own mixed feelings about the fashion industry is at the heart of everything wrong with how we view not only beauty, but the entire female gender. And it certainly ties directly into our own mixed feelings on our own beauty. For an insanely cynical characterization, The Neon Demon nakedly posits the nakedly un-cynical idea that maybe we should think of ourselves as beautiful. And maybe we shouldn’t only focus on the things about ourselves that aren’t good enough.
And maybe we shouldn’t kill (and eat the flesh of) the notion of positive self image.