“How much contempt does Nicolas Winding Refn have for women?”
This question comes to me maybe a quarter of the way into the Drive and Bronson director’s most recent film, The Neon Demon.
The horror/thriller follows Jesse, a 16-year-old California transplant played by Elle Fanning who aspires to break into Los Angeles’ modeling industry. Jesse’s youth and beauty quickly skyrocket her to the upper echelons of the fashion world, earning the admiration of respected photographers and designers, and the scorn of other models, most of whom are quickly aging out of their profession in their early 20s. All of these forces seek to somehow exploit Jesse’s talents, culminating in a scene where women — literally — eat each other alive.
It’s a painfully obvious metaphor: the modeling industry is vicious and seeks to exploit and devour young women at the expense of their humanity. It wouldn’t surprise me if Refn thought The Neon Demon would be his most feminist work yet. “I’m not a 16-year-old girl, though I’d like to be sometimes,” he said in recent interviews.
And, admittedly, The Neon Demon does illustrate an existing gender dynamic in fashion. Women (young, white, blonde, though looking at Refn’s track record, any commentary on Western, racialized beauty standards are purely incidental) have the spotlight, though their fates are controlled primarily by older men. A Terry Richardson-esque photographer (Desmond Harrington) gives Jesse her big break; a fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) gives Jesse the closing spot at a show, over more experienced models; and even her motel manager, Hank (Keanu Reeves), holds a tight noose around her neck, hitting her up for petty cash when a mountain lion destroys her room, knowing she has nowhere else to live.
But if Refn really sought to explore this, he did so with a cudgel, not a scalpel. In an early scene, Jesse goes to a party with a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), and two models, Sarah and Gigi (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcoate, respectively). The group pontificates on how lipstick colors are always named after food or sex, like “pink pussy,” Ruby suggests coyly (Refn subtly hinting that yes, Ruby is an insatiably lustful lesbian who will definitely try to take advantage of our underage protagonist). In trying to figure out if Jesse’s lipstick color would be food or sex, the group decides on food. Seconds later, it is revealed that Jesse has never had sex, as she hesitates to respond when interrogated by Sarah.
This is, for the most part, the level of depth you can expect from the film’s characters. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily bad to have women who are cruel or petty in a film that attempts to explore narcissism, but the ones that exist within the world of The Neon Demon rarely move beyond one dimension. Gigi and Sarah might as well be replaced with cardboard cutouts with “PLASTIC SURGERY” and “AGEISM” written on them, respectively. That’s not to demean the actors who play them. Heathcoate and Lee occasionally shine, but it’s rarely, if ever, because of what they’re saying.
As much as Refn talks about wanting to be a 16-year-old girl or embracing femininity, all his films, including this one, view the world through the lens of masculinity. This isn’t just intrinsic because Refn is a man (it is), but in the world of The Neon Demon, masculinity is vindicated.
“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” is uttered, not by any of the women, but by the male fashion designer. He says this to punctuate a monologue about the virtues of true beauty, to tell Gigi that she could never be truly beautiful, no matter how she altered her face. Dean, Jesse’s friend, tries to speak up, but is quickly shot down and storms away after the designer asks if he would have even given Jesse the time of day if he didn’t think she was beautiful. The scene ends, and I was hard-pressed to imagine the designer (who is credited only as “Fashion Designer”) being anything but Refn’s stand-in.
It’s frustrating that the text of The Neon Demon has so little to say, apart from telling you that Los Angeles, modeling, and fashion are vapid narcissism machines. None of this is particularly new or enlightening. People have said these things of Los Angeles and these respective industries for decades, occasionally in more nuanced ways than The Neon Demon ever tries to do.
Recently, Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief for RogerEbert.com, recalled Roger Ebert’s philosophy in approaching films and why it resonated with his readers. “He wrote about a film’s vision of life & asked if it felt true,” he tweeted.
I think Ebert would have hated The Neon Demon. Its vision of life feels artificial and cold; as shallow as the industry it attempts to portray. And it’s a shame, because its few genuine moments are more effective and chilling than any bit of ultra-violence or neon surrealism it offers. Christina Hendricks, who plays modeling agent Roberta Hoffman, has maybe five minutes of screen time, but a wide shot where she walks into a lobby, eyes one of the three models waiting for their appointments, and dismissively says, “You can go,” feels so painfully true to life. Similarly, Reeves, as Hank, refers to a 13-year-old tenant of his motel as “real Lolita shit,” which carries an impending threat of violence with far greater weight than the four lead women explicitly killing and eating each other onscreen.
The Neon Demon purports to illuminate the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies while simultaneously turning them into puppets with little agency beyond their symbolism. Refn ends up emulating those same men in the film who operate the industry from behind the curtains.
The Neon Demon doesn’t subvert the male gaze so much as it eagerly participates in it. In the very literal climax of the film, after Jesse rejects Ruby’s advances, Ruby clocks in at her side job where she does makeup for a morgue and has sex with a woman’s corpse. This is intercut with an imagined Jesse, posing on a couch and possibly masturbating, but mostly just rubbing her hands all over her own face, while the camera lasciviously pans across their bodies. Minutes later, we’re treated to a slow-motion tilt upward on Sarah and Gigi, as they wash Jesse’s blood from their bodies after killing her. Cue the fourth or fifth time I bury my face into my hands, to keep myself from screaming to the five other people in the theater with me.
The Neon Demon was a frustrating experience for me, and the two-hour run-time felt closer to three (I expected the credits to roll no fewer than three different times in the last fifteen minutes of the film). But that’s not to say it’s totally without its merits. As can be predicted, Refn has a striking aesthetic sensibility, though as Glenn Kenny wrote in his review for The New York Times, “they’re all secondhand: faux Fellini, faux David Lynch and so on.” I wouldn’t be surprised if he liked vaporwave and kept a secret Tumblr account dedicated to following hundreds of “aesthetic” blogs that post blue-pink gradients every day.
In spite of Refn’s direction and in spite of the script, however, is Cliff Martinez’s tense, sinister score. Though he occasionally dips his toes back into the pulsing neon electronica that so defined Drive, Martinez weaves in sonic elements from hard-boiled noir and B-grade horror films from the 50s and 60s.
At its worst, The Neon Demon reminded me of films I actually enjoyed watching; Beyond the Black Rainbow, Jodorowsky’s later works, and so on. At its best, the movie’s sense of tension is impeccable. As much as Refn is known for unflinching gore, it’s the palpable threat of violence that bubbles beneath each scene that really works. Unfortunately, cinematography doesn’t redeem a film that feels content in steeping itself in its own misguided misogyny and homophobia. The Neon Demon feels like a movie made by a man who likes a lot of the things you think are cool, but ultimately has nothing interesting to say about any of it.
Maybe instead of watching The Neon Demon, you should read this hilariously uncomfortable interview of Refn by Jacob Hall for /Film: http://www.slashfilm.com/neon-demon-interview/