I’m finding The Neon Demon a hard movie to really pin down in review, so before we get into that, I want to start somewhere else. Also, I don’t feel that I can talk about this movie meaningfully without some spoilers, so be warned; but I’ll try to keep them vague.
One of the urtexts of feminist studies is John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and in it he establishes ideas of the male gaze and what it means to look at women, and for women to be looked at. To reduce this fundamental text into an appropriate enough size to introduce a film review; Ways of Seeing argues that men look at women, and women look at themselves being looked at, that there is power in seeing, and we condemn women for taking that power into their own hands. In his own words, “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”
I bring this up because The Neon Demon is very much a film about men looking at women, women looking at other women, and women looking at themselves. I’m hard pressed to try and find any subtext in this movie; everything seems to exist only on the surface of things, and I can only presume that’s the point. The Neon Demon is, visually and aurally, so bold, so ostentatious, garish even, as to create an impenetrable barrier between its surface and anything that might be underneath. It’s a film about seeing, not thinking – style, not substance.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16 year old orphan hoping to start a modeling career in LA, and luckily has the doe-eyed, natural good looks to immediately become the most popular new model in town. Besides agents, photographers, and designers; Jesse also attracts the attention of fellow models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), and the affection of ambiguously intentioned make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone).
The Neon Demon focuses on the relationship between these women, and how they look at each-other and themselves. One of the earliest scenes in the movie, the introduction between Jesse and Ruby, takes place in a room where the two are looking into opposite facing mirrors. We see the two women as they see each-other – in their reflections – and Ruby says the first line of the film, “Sorry, am I staring?” Connecting this back to Berger, this first line should immediately clue us into the dynamic she’ll have with Jesse, although in the moment it seems to set up the opposite. We think Jesse has the power because she attracts attention, and so does Jesse.
This is also the first of many mirror shots of Jesse, Ruby, and all the other female characters in the film. Throughout The Neon Demon we look at women looking at themselves. The movie in one way conveys the characters’ vanity, but makes the audience just as culpable of a perverse kind of lust.
Jesse’s relationship with the other models is not a friendly one, as she repeatedly takes their spots in shoots, becoming the favorite of the film’s photographers and designers. Jesse is praised for her natural, seemingly effortless beauty while the other models are condemned for receiving plastic surgery. It seems that when a model tries to take control of her appearance, even if it is to cultivate it to be more pleasurable to the male gaze, they are punished for noticing themselves at all.
The performances in The Neon Demon are more posturing than acting, with every character speaking each line with a self-consciousness that comes with being watched. One could chalk this up to bad acting, but it feels too intentional. These characters (and some of the actresses), after all, are models – posturing is their livelihood. They talk as though they are being watched because they likely are being watched; and in the context of the film, we’re never not watching them.
And all of this watching seems to have a negative influence on the characters. The Neon Demon is filmed like a horror movie, but for most of its runtime, lacks a discrete monster. Scenes are shot in a way that escalates tension, building anticipation for something evil to jump out and attack the characters. Aesthetically, The Neon Demon takes a lot from the Italian Giallo with its oversaturated colors, attention grabbing music, and dreamlike atmosphere. Horror in Giallo is a form of aesthetic and tonal excess or gratuitousness, an extreme sensory experience more than an emotional or intellectual one. And so, in The Neon Demon, the audience becomes the monster for watching. We don’t so much watch the characters become more vain and desperate as the film progresses as our looking creates and fuels their darker urges. In every mirror we see their reflection in, the characters are surely able to see us looking at them, thus confirming that they’re always being watched, and that they always have to be beautiful. Various close-ups of Jesse help confirm this; she seems the most proud when her face is the only thing in the shot, when she’s the only thing we’re looking at.
And besides the characters, the entirety of The Neon Demon seems to want us to notice it. I’ve talked enough about the camera work, but in addition to that, the film is drowning in oversaturated primary colors and a synth and bass heavy soundtrack that continually pops up to draw attention to itself. Are you seeing how beautiful the sets, costumes, and actresses are? Isn’t the music in this film good enough to buy separately? The Neon Demon draws you in by drawing you to its elaborately and immaculately constructed surface. And, just as a reminder, Ruby, who’ve we established as powerful by means of looking, is also a make-up artist.
Despite being almost entirely surface, I have a feeling I’m going to continue to think deeper into The Neon Demon for a while after watching it. And it’s probably going to be difficult for me to keep myself from reading into what I want this movie to be based on appearances. Alternatively to everything I’ve already written, The Neon Demon could simply be Nicolas Winding Refn telling a story about how the modeling industry exploits women by setting them against each-other, and condemning those women for being vain and catty. But if that is the case, it makes the audience complicit in it, which would bring us full circle: Are these characters vain for looking in a mirror, or are we to blame for painting it into their hand?