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A richly symbolic film.

The Neon Demon carries on the tradition of weird, confrontational Nicholas Winding Refn movies. After the success of Drive, which I think bothered and bemused him, he has made sure his next two movies are more like Valhalla Rising in that they are textured, visually arresting, and precisely constructed films that hold their audiences at arm’s length while tantalizing them with symbols, colors, clues, and scenes that feel like moving tapestries. If you didn’t like Only God Forgives it’s safe to say you probably won’t like this, but it’s that movie’s companion piece. As much as that one was about masculinity, The Neon Demon is about femininity. It has a lot in common with Black Swan at first glance, and probably would play as a great companion piece to The Witch (brilliant film) from earlier this year.

Even if you did like all his prior work, there’s still a chance you won’t like this one. It’s as ambivalent about plot and ambiguous about theme as it is disturbing, violent, and deliberately paced (in other words: episodic and potentially slow). This movie feels like an exploration, but also like a puckish practical joke which consistently sets up red herrings, expectations, and plot points only to veer hard in the other direction, often leaving elements resonating in symbolism and dying on the vine in terms of narrative. All the while, there’s a dark humor and awareness of genre conventions which plays out under the (perfect) skin of this film. Right up to the end, it feels like something(s) it probably isn’t. It feels like a movie made in the wrong decade, like something your parents had on VHS tucked away in the very back of the cabinet. If this sounds like something you’ll enjoy, NWR has a treat for you.

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If I can sum it up in a sentence, the theme of this movie is that beauty is sinister…

…but not just in terms of its static conceptual nature. The pursuit and attainment of beauty is also sinister. It is the highest currency we have, one character (a pretentious fashion designer) says at one point. It’s about the adoration, the envy, and the desire of others. It’s about the raw power, which Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian called “the power of flesh”. For some people, like Jesse (Elle Fanning), our heroine, it’s not “every thing, it’s the only thing”.

There’s very little plot here. Jesse is a model new on scene in L.A. At a shoot, she is adopted by a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to the world she’s trying to join. Ruby’s friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) are immediately hostile. As Jesse’s star rises, these three women hover and orbit around it like crows. Beautiful and sinister, they feel like the mean girls we’ve seen many times before, with Jesse the innocent lamb who may be in over her head. At first you’re not sure how much to trust this intuition, based as it is on tropey expectations. Moreover, there’s something downright alien about Gigi and Sarah and I am certain the actresses were cast for this reason. Jesse, on the contrary, is wholesome and pure. The more we find out about her, the more dark and rich the humor and the more poignant the mirror that Winding Refn is holding up to the audience to say “look, look… this is what beauty is”.

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Virginal and innocent.

On some level, Jesse’s story is one of seduction and empowerment and the movie constantly plays with the audience’s relationship with her. Are we supposed to feel scared for her or scared of her? During virtuoso scenes that take on the visual and tonal dimension of visions, Jesse seems to transition from lamb to lion and her power becomes intoxicating to those around her. Her beauty is the only thing she’s good at, she tells Dean (Karl Glusman), who insists that he sees what’s inside her as they go through the motions of a very conventional (on paper) coming of age romance.

This is one of those red herrings I talked about. Dean is there to remind us of a movie that The Neon Demon could be, but isn’t. Most of the secondary and tertiary characters are just so, including the creepy photographer (Desmond Harrington, emaciated to a shocking degree these days) who appears again near the end of the film. Keanu Reeves shows up in a delicious but small role as a seedy motel manager. He gets one of the movie’s most telling lines, as he tells Dean to check out the 13-year old runaway girl in one of his rooms. An echo of Jesse, “some real Lolita shit”. Later, there’s a signature “did that really happen?” scene with him, Jesse, and a knife. These characters and scenes hover around Jesse to suggest tropes and subplots that mostly serve to counter and therefore crystallize the truth of the movie, a truth that only the three women obsessed with Jesse can embody.

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There are some deeply unsettling scenes in this movie. The runway is one, the cadaver scene is the other (worse).

What’s the truth? The Neon Demon is kind of like other body horror movies, and feels Cronenbergish occasionally, but it also holds the body at a remove that is distinct from most body horror, which usually wants you to feel really embodied, like you’re encased in a prison of fluids, flesh, bone, and gristle. The Neon Demon makes the body mysterious, esoteric, and alien/angelic/demonic only to veer sharply into more conventional body horror at the end. Sex as a dimension of beauty is something esoteric and elusive, not the same as the physical act. Food, though, is tangible and embodied and horrible. For most of the movie, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was something supernatural afoot. When Sarah sucks blood from Jesse’s wounded hand, you think “a-ha! this is a vampire movie!” and NWR certainly plays with that (or maybe a witch movie). But the true nature of Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah’s obsession over Jesse is never fully known and not exactly important. What is important is the adjective nature of it: possessive, envious, consumptive, destructive. I don’t think it’s all that important if they are witches or vampires or whatever. They are women obsessed with a singular beauty (characterized by virginity and innocence) and when they can’t have it, when it shuns and surpasses them, they destroy and consume it. This is the truth.

I think NWR and co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham are saying something about beauty that resonates, and might resonate especially among women. What is this sinister beauty which is familiar and exotic, the world of models and high fashion and precisely-engineered photography? It’s not the world most of us inhabit, but it’s a world of aspiration and attunement to something we all definitely understand: the physical beauty of a woman is probably one of the most universal focal points of the human experience, and there’s probably something funny, scary, and fucked up about that. Usually, a woman is objectified by men and we all understand this. But the flip side, the objectification of women by women, is not as often explored and is inherently more interesting, dangerous, and layered. Which is what the movie is mostly about, I think.

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What is the Neon Demon?

The ending of this movie is bonkers. In some ways it feels like NWR is ducking and weaving through other subplots and possible paths to conclusion, but the very best movies feel inevitable when they end. Your mileage may vary, but I feel like The Neon Demon has that quality of inevitability. When the three women corner Jesse, at the height of her power, to trap and kill and consume her, you feel that inevitability, that “of course they want to kill her” slam down like a heavy door. But still, you might wonder for the last few minutes whether Jesse is truly dead or has become something else. The movie quickly disabuses us of that notion, but in a very interesting way. Why does Gigi sicken and become suicidal, while Sarah (who seems blazingly demonic) not only revels in it but happily chows down on a stray eyeball. We see the difference, but what does it mean?

As a wavy-tressed (like Jesse) Sarah strides across a desert into a sunset, a weirdly triumphant song slamming down over the credits, it feels like we’ve seen the Neon Demon, the triangular thing in Jesse’s visions (which empowers her and changes her quite visibly), has passed on. Were Sarah’s eyes always as blue as when the photographer notices her and hires her on the spot, as if she is no longer approaching the age (and familiarity to the industry) that signals the end of the life-cycle of a model? The words Ruby says to Jesse early in the film, “are you food, or are you sex?” echo through.

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If Jesse is food, then Sarah is sex.

The Neon Demon is a film that I think will grow in stature on future rewatches, and as the rich symbolism is decoded (what this movie does with color is something I can only struggle to understand). I already know I love it, and I credit my experience with Only God Forgives for that. I really didn’t know what to make of that movie when I walked out of it the first time, but it got under my skin. I think The Neon Demon is already there.

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