The Neon Demon (2016)

Nicolas Winding Refn | 1hr 58min

In turning his provocative, neon-tinted stylings to Hollywood’s cutthroat fashion industry in The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn quite literally puts his cast of models and actors under the knife, carving out a hellish underworld of cannibalistic cultism kept hidden behind a façade of attractiveness. Elle Fanning is our entryway into this environment as newcomer Jesse, an underage girl from Georgia who quickly becomes the centre of attention in Los Angeles’ model community. In drawing the public’s gaze away from older, more experienced women, she disrupts a rigid structure that values “manufactured beauty” – a description usually worn as badge of diligence and personal sacrifice, but which is challenged by the natural beauty and relative innocence that she carries with pride.

“Are you sex, or are you food?”

Though this question that fellow models Sarah and Gigi pose Jesse upon their first meeting is in reference to the naming conventions of lipstick, it also suggestively boils down her identity into one of two carnal desires. If she is sex, then she is a woman who will engage directly in the ways others devour her beauty; if she is food, then she will be feasted upon and destroyed in the process. Either way, she is joining a community of women whose purpose is to satiate the appetites of consumers, and Refn fully recognises the body horror potential in mixing these two symbols within the setting of a menacing, erotic cult.

Refn is a master of lighting and colour, here blending the main colour schemes of red and blue to create this neon purple wash, all the while introducing his motif of mirrors.
Even beyond his lighting setups, Refn still finds such gorgeous imagery in his blocking and production design.

For those who decry Refn’s mixing of confronting violence, intense visual artistry, and self-serious, slow-burn narratives, this may not be the film to sway any opinions. What is harder to deny is his mastery over the fluorescent lighting and colours of every single scene, melding this audacious aesthetic with Jesse’s ascent to narcissistic glory, and her transformation into her “neon demon” alter-ego. Refn splits his palette and her identity into three Freudian segments – white representing her superego, a blank slate of innocence she presents to society; blue signifying her ego in its suggestion of reflective, watery surfaces; and red becoming the id, a primal force that embraces carnal sin and dangerous passion. The significance of the number three is echoed right down the recurring triangle motif, its repetition establishing it as a sort of occult symbol that underlies the identities of every woman who has entered this industry.

Jesse consumed in white negative space, an image of innocence.
Egos represented in blue, like reflections and refractions in water.
Mirrors continuing to remain a symbol of vanity as Jesse completes her transformation into the Neon Demon, bathed in red.

Yet even as Jesse becomes the attention-stealing star of Los Angeles, she never engages directly in the sorts of sexual acts that the other models do, instead choosing to uphold the untouchable, virginal image that sets her apart. Casting Elle Fanning in this role is a fascinating choice from Refn, as although she is indeed beautiful, she clearly does not fit the more conventional standards set by her co-stars. With such a discrepancy in their looks, Refn instead focuses on the ambiance that surrounds her, emphasised by his blocking of her centre-frame and often with a significant distance between her and everyone else.

A perfectly blocked composition from Refn, centring Jesse in a crowd of models.
The physical distance between Jesse and everyone else is important to Refn’s shaping of their relationships, but he is also still making sure to catch their reflections in mirrors here.

When one of Jesse’s associates, the make-up artist Ruby, attempts to initiate sex and is turned down, both immediately go looking for their release elsewhere – Ruby in a horrific setting that truly underscores the carnal dominance of her sexuality, and Jesse on her own, attaining pleasure in her self-absorption. In a meditative, hallucinatory display of parallel cutting, Refn unifies these two women who fantasise about each other and could be together at this moment, but are held apart by Jesse’s own pride.

The disconnection that becomes evident between these vapid, self-obsessed characters further carries through to their detached, controlled performances, as Refn is sure to accentuate the pauses between each line of dialogue. It isn’t too dissimilar to how Carl Theodor Dreyer directs his actors, draining them of emotion so that the visual power of their environments may speak for them instead. After all, maintaining this stoic demeanour is the only way one can rise up the ranks of The Neon Demon’s cult-like fashion industry. As for whether one chooses to submit to its patriarchal agenda and become “sex” or to maintain one’s independence and become “food” – therein lies the crux of success for any of these women looking to profit off their beauty.

Triangles in the mise-en-scène carrying through to the end. Simply remarkable visual form, always emphasising the three-pointed facets of these women’s identities.

The Neon Demon is available to stream on Stan, and available to rent or buy on YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

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