The Neon Demon is an odious and hateful movie. It traffics in a base misogyny that masquerades as high art. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has tried to complicate the issue of that misogyny by populating his movie with an almost exclusively female cast. The fact that the women who are punished and degraded in The Neon Demon suffer their fate mostly at the hands of other women doesn’t make it any less troubling.
To counter this baseness, Refn collaborated with two women on the script, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. In an interview with The Evening Standard, Refn intimates that he wanted to work with a woman on this new script because of his perceived issues with writing female characters. “I always set out wanting to make films about women but it always ends up being about men. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to write them.”
In the same interview, Stenham acknowledges Refn’s reputation for treating the women in his movies poorly. “He’s got a lot of stick for doing films some people think are violently misogynistic. So he approached me with the idea of doing something different.” His choice of collaborators on this project doesn’t give the impression that he’s trying to grow as an artist when it comes to his female characters, though, which I think was the intended effect. Instead, it feels like cover for Refn to indulge in an even more extreme misogyny than what’s been found in his previous work.
The Neon Demon tells the story of Jesse, an aspiring model fresh off the bus from Anytown, USA who slowly discovers the wicked and murderous underbelly of the LA fashion scene. If the plot description sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Refn borrows liberally from previous films that focus on the Dream Factory that is Hollywood and the ultimately hollow success it promises. Whether it’s the world of movies, music, or modeling, storytellers have an endless supply of raw material to be mined when it comes to the broken dreams of hopefuls arriving in LaLaLand.
Refn’s movie is firmly rooted in formalism and existential horror, and the filmmakers he draws inspiration from for The Neon Demon come from the same tradition. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, and the work of David Lynch, specifically Mullholland Dr. and Inland Empire, come instantly to mind. The tongue-in-cheek humor of Lynch’s Mullholland Dr. is missing here, though, which leads to a moment of laughing at The Neon Demon instead of with it.
In one scene, Jesse lines up with five or six other women to audition for a runway show put on by an obviously disinterested and distracted fashion designer. He barely looks up as Jesse’s competition, including a woman he has worked with before, try desperately to impress him. The second Jesse steps to the front, though, the designer is utterly captivated. He even stutters over his words as he tries to comprehend the perfection before his eyes. The scene recalls the moment in Mullholland Dr., when the ingénue Betty auditions for a part in a movie and captivates the entire room. There is a playful use of irony in that scene that is completely lacking in the similar scene of The Neon Demon. It’s played completely straight, and as a consequence feels clichéd, bordering on laughable.
Refn is famous for his brutally violent subject matter, and this film is no exception. The message of the movie is to punish women for daring to be too proud of their perfect bodies, while never letting them forget that they are mere objects for male consumption. Throughout the entire movie, Jesse is told what an incredible gift she owns. She has It. Jesse is bold enough to own the pride she feels for possessing this indefinable quality, saying as much twice, and Refn punishes her harshly for it.
The first time involves a late night conversation at a coffee shop after Jesse has completed her first star turn at a fashion show. She takes her boyfriend, Dean, to meet the fashion designer who has made her a sensation. They find this designer chatting with a few other models, and when Jesse introduces Dean to the trio, the designer treats him shabbily. He lets Dean know that he doesn’t deserve to be with Jesse. The designer also takes the opportunity to belittle the two other models in the room by comparing them to Jesse. “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass,” he tells the group, while reminding them that her looks, how she is perceived by others, is all that matters. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” he says. Jesse beams. Dean dejectedly suggests to her that they should just go. Jesse shoots back at him, “Then go.”
Jesse is taking ownership of her self-worth, no matter how much that self-worth depends on her being an object for others to enjoy, and for that she must be ruthlessly punished. For her transgression, she is confronted in the next scene by the sleazy manager of the rundown hotel where she stays. In a harrowing scene of psychological terror, Jesse is threatened with rape and murder as a consequence of her hubris.
The second time Jesse dares to be proud of her own value leads to the horrific and bloody climax of the film, so I can’t divulge the specifics. Suffice it to say, the other models who both hate Jesse for her beauty while simultaneously coveting her ineffable quality for their very own decide to teach her a lesson in a vicious way. The old saying, “The eyes are the window to the soul,” comes into nauseating play as Refn allows Jesse to exact the smallest revenge on at least one of her tormentors in the last scene of the movie.
Now comes the part where I completely contradict myself. As vile as I find the message that The Neon Demon delivers up, there is no way I can deny how spellbinding the film actually is and how much I was captivated by Refn’s stylistic choices. I’ve been an admirer of his cinematic style for many years now, and I can still recall with absolute clarity the first time I experienced his ethereal work on Valhalla Rising. Ditto for his absorbing films Bronson, Drive, and even a film I was disappointed with, Only God Forgives. That’s the picture where Refn came closest to self-parody, and while it’s narratively infuriating, Only God Forgives is visually and tonally transcendental.
The same is true of The Neon Demon. There are moments in this film that I will treasure having had the opportunity to see projected onto a larger-than-life screen. Jesse and her new model pals go to a nightclub early in the film to see a show that consists only of haunting synthesizer music and a seemingly dismembered body floating in the air while hypnotic strobe lights pulse in a pitch black room.
The dread Refn conjures as Jesse is put in a distressing situation on her first professional fashion shoot made me sick to my stomach. In fact, if there is any argument for the movie not being misogynistic, it lies in the fact that you as an audience member see the world through Jesse’s eyes, and experience her every moment of panic and terror. The film was incredibly effective at making me identify with Jesse’s plight. Elle Fanning absolutely possesses the same It quality Jesse has, and with which every character in the movie is obsessed. It’s impossible to look away from her whenever she’s on the screen.
Nicholas Winding Refn is an incredibly unique cinematic artist who knows how to fill a frame with intoxicating visuals. I was enraptured by every long, slow pan, every meticulously crafted bloody tableau, as though I was watching a living painting. Refn’s collaboration with musician Cliff Martinez brings an evocative auditory complement to the unsettling imagery. Martinez’s otherworldly, thrumming synthesized score creates a tone that makes you believe anything can happen. It also makes you dread that anything will.
As angry and disgusted as I was by the themes of The Neon Demon, I have to admit, it wouldn’t allow me to stop thinking about it. Refn certainly knows how to push my buttons. After all, good art doesn’t only help you discover what you stand for, but also what you stand against. Most importantly, it makes you feel alive. I can’t deny that’s exactly what this movie did to me.
Why it got 3 stars:
- I think this is the most I've struggled with putting a star rating on a movie since I started writing. I just can't get behind the content of The Neon Demon, but the style is second to none. I initially thought I'd split the difference and go right down the middle with 2.5 stars, but the look and mood of this picture demands more, so I upped it to three.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- My editor pointed out to me that I left out Stanley Kubrick when mentioning the influences that are working on The Neon Demon. He's totally right, Kubrick is all over this thing, and I should have mentioned that. In particular, the compositions and camera movements (and also lack of movement) echo everything from A Clockwork Orange, to Barry Lyndon, to Eyes Wide Shut. I think I forgot to mention it because Kubrick never did anything so experimental as The Neon Demon, and because of that I was focused on David Lynch.
- Speaking of experimental, there's one scene in The Neon Demon where Jesse goes into a trance while staring into a mysterious pyramid shaped object. It's the automatic front runner for my favorite sequence of the year.