The Neon Demon kills Jesse (Elle Fanning) before the movie begins. I can’t think of a film that dared to off its protagonist in the opening shot. No, this isn’t a spoiler, and anyway, The Neon Demon isn’t the kind of film you can spoil like that. It’s a psychosexual thriller in the vein of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue—in fact, by the time the credits rolled I was fairly convinced director Nicholas Winding Refn is a big Kon fan.
All the elements are there: female protagonist with a tenuous grip on reality; struggles with fame, identity; blood and mirrors everywhere. And if I told you that Perfect Blue ends with a knife chase through the streets of Tokyo, anyone who’s seen the film would agree that’s about as vague as you can get. So it is with Kon and, now, Refn. Plot matters less than psychology.
The Neon Demon opens on Jesse: throat cut, bleeding, and a man leering over her. She’s splayed on a couch covered in a splendid dress now speckled with blood. Did he kill her? No. It’s a photo shoot; she’s a model, and he’s a photographer. She isn’t dead at all. But the sense of foreboding never leaves. By the film’s end, I wondered if this was indeed the moment of Jesse’s death, and everything after it mere epilogue.
“Are you food, or are you sex?” a fellow model, Gigi (Bella Heathcoate), asks Jesse. In a conversation ostensibly about lipstick colors, Gigi frames the essence of The Neon Demon. Every piece of the film is built around the female form from personhood to self-worth. These are models. They are the subject of an inherently male gaze: self-described “coat hangers” meant to be ogled and shot as they parade clothes in front of cameras and audiences.
Credit to Refn, however. He never lets us become voyeurs—at least, not until the end of the film. He hands off the camerawork to Natasha Braier, a female cinematographer who keeps nudity away for the first two acts of the film. Her framing is simultaneously gorgeous and focused. Neither Gigi, nor Jesse, nor Australian model Sarah (a standout Abbey Lee), nor make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) are ever objects—only subjects. This is a feat in a film so obsessed with image and beauty.
Even as male characters objectify them, as nearly ever male character does in either words or action, we rarely get full body shots of the women. Sequences where photographers sit and judge the models go on endlessly. Yet Braier never gives us an opportunity to think about anything but how suffocating these men’s gazes are. She forces us to settle with the models’ faces, and from there, their emotions. None of it is sexy or fun. Braier and Refn mean for us to uncomfortable.
In this way, Refn keeps us at a distance. He does not involve us in the horror show unfolding for Jessie, a 16-year-old high school drop out who decides to try to succeed in the world of high fashion. As the industry starts to take notice of her natural beauty and her own ego blossoms, Refn does not invite us to root for her, but rather to gape at and pity her.
And yet, Refn does involve us—narratively, if not aesthetically. Late in the film, one photographer tells Jesse, “Beauty is not everything, it is the only thing.” He then challenges Jesse’s boyfriend, Dean (Karl Glusman), that he only finds himself attracted to her for her looks. At that moment I wondered what I was following her for. Jesse has no clear attributes. Unlike Ruby, she’s not protective or seductive, caring or lusty. She has no describable features other than those you might find on an ID: her age and her appearance. Was I invested in her because she’s attractive? Because Refn made her his subject?
Refn and co-writers Polly Stenham and Mary Laws don’t so much question the value of aesthetic beauty as they do distort it (again, something Satoshi Kon was fond of). When we are introduced to Gigi and Sarah, they are stunning, ostensibly perfect examples of contemporary beauty standards. By the film’s end, after they reveal their true natures, they seem like nothing but grotesque caricatures of magazine covers. They’re the kind of characters where in animation they’d just turn into disfigured mutants in the climax; here, they can only repulse with their actions.
Refn and Braier remove us from these characters in another way. The camera often shoots Jesse and her peers through mirrors. That is where they’re most often looking; mirrors constantly surround them, shatter when their reputation is broken, become weapons when they feel threatened. When Ruby needs to prepare for a seduction, she checks herself in the mirror. Then she checks again after her seduction fails to understand what went wrong. The mirror is her support and her self-critique, but most importantly, to her it relays her self-worth.
Another scene pushes the point further. As Gigi stalks along a row of farding mirrors, her profile is in darkness—a silhouette. But what the bright lights on the mirrors obscure in the foreground of the shot they illuminate in the background. Her face is bright and lively as it appears in each small mirror. Yet these moments are fleeting. It seems every time she’s walking between the mirrors, she disappears. Subtle but powerful moments like these sell Refn’s thesis; they communicate who these women are without any words at all.
Mirrors are perhaps most significant for Jesse, whose gradual descent as a model is increasingly accented by reflections. We see her on a quiet date, naturally illuminated by the sunset and then the moon. She’s herself in sporadic interactions with Ruby and on her first few modeling gigs, too. But when she first meets Ruby, they converse across a dressing room exclusively through mirrors. Is Ruby meeting Jesse, or what Jesse becomes? Perhaps their friendship is doomed from the beginning.
At the motel where Jesse’s staying, the camera tracks idly by a mirrored wall as she moves across the room, basked in fluorescent light. In the club bathroom where she meets the other models for the first time, mirrors surround their encounter and neon bulbs coat the room in hot pink. Toward the final act, she constantly checks herself in increasingly prevalent reflective surfaces. Her life has inverted. Her perception of herself is predicated on how the world sees her, and in that, she loses all sense of self.
The Neon Demon challenges the idea of bodily autonomy. This is a film about women. A man doesn’t have a speaking role for the first 15 minutes of the film, and every major event involves female interaction. But it is all backgrounded by male power structures. Whatever the female characters do to each other—neglect, tear down or attack—Refn, Stenham and Laws make it clear they do so to please and bend knee to men. They put the onus squarely at the feet of the system that created these monsters and not on the monsters themselves. They are the monster to men’s careless Dr. Frankenstein.
The Neon Demon can be many things, but it is nothing if not the piercingly bright cage that traps these pitiful, often monstrous creatures. And it is a cage. It is an observational cube built so the rest of us can stare, a burning set of bars that take away agency, and confuse the abused with misguided ideas about the value of women. It is a powerful statement and one of those rare films where aesthetic and narrative elements catapult off one another in just the right way. Like many Satoshi Kon films, I don’t know how much I enjoyed Demon—but I know I want to go down the rabbit hole again as soon as possible.
Verdict: Movie Win