The Neon Demon is a gorgeous film. The bold, color-saturated photography of Natasha Braier paired with Cliff Martinez’s haunting score makes the entire event a devilish sensuous treat. It’s a horror flick set in the L. A. fashion scene, a notorious breeding ground for real monsters. When everyone is beautiful, the currency of pretty depreciates quickly, so some other savage quality may be required to thrive. The Neon Demon jumps, with impish glee, straight into the sparkle-lined abyss that idea conjures, like Alice spiraling into the underworld.
“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” a fashion designer tells Jesse at some point. She’s a young teen from small-town Georgia, but it quickly becomes clear that she’s here to devour Hollywood, not the other way around. The quality she seems to have that’s almost mysteriously turning everyone’s head is the unwavering, perhaps naive, confidence no amount of money can guarantee. Jesse is immune to the rampant plague of insecurity that afflicts most people, especially in an industry built on the absurd notion that an impossible thing like perfection exists. Her self-love is like a pheromone that makes her stand out to photographers and others in the beauty industry who’ve grown board of the endless tides of symmetrical faces and long limbs that parade past like paper dolls.
When the girls kill and literally devour Jesse, it’s an attempt to not only get rid of her as competition, to get revenge on her power, but to assume her through consumption. One of the girls, Gigi, proves to be too human in the face of this brutality, too plagued by remorse and disgust. Her disgust seems to make her a better person than Sarah, but it makes her a weaker person. In the end, Sarah’s ruthlessness has turned her into a true demon. It’s not that she made a deal with the devil, she became one.
The movie isn’t necessarily an indictment of shallow pursuit of beauty, it’s more of a twisted celebration of the most brutal means to an end, of the hollow glory of winning. Jesse was a satiated Narcissus, but Sarah’s an avid student of Machiavelli’s recommendations on how to get ahead. It’s a glittering, animal evil that hints at magic, but she didn’t need a spell to become the monster she became; she just needed to believe in herself. Consuming her rival seemed to have been a ritual that solidified her confidence.
It’s a shocking, deliciously provocative tale; a garish porcelain fantasy nightmare. Male danger stalks at the edges of The Neon Demon, but feminine villains are the true threat, and the vile consequences of unblemished jealousy is the shimmering poison that seeps through the fabric of the film. Jesse’s haughty obliviousness to jealousy is what endangers her. She’s too sure of herself to question her new-found standing at the top of the pile.
There has been quite a bit of backlash surround this film, backlash that I had no idea about when I saw this movie (the audience at its Cannes premiere both booed and went wild for it, reportedly in almost equal parts.) The argument is that outspoken director Nicolas Winding Refn is a misogynist and that the film itself sends the message that young women are evil, vapid self-obsessed narcissists. I didn’t get that sense watching the film, however.
The women on screen are evil, empty and vain. They are monsters, and all the best fictional monsters are exaggerated humans. This isn’t an in-depth character study, it’s a glitter and neon fright show, a psycho-visual thrill-fest. The story itself is rather disjointed, flowing like a dream from one trippy vignette to the next. It’s a ride that doesn’t answer any questions and doesn’t even flirt at asking many. It seems to be meant to be a sensation, relishing in color and sound and base emotions.
Jesse’s perfect power is absurd, it’s an abstraction, and it’s exactly the kind of fantasy a young girl would have. It’s a kind of fantasy I had as a teen: the dream of your beauty somehow containing an unknowable potency that could conquer everything. When you filter all images and stories of beauty through puberty, a sort of day-glow distortion can emerge creating a cruelly cool mirage, a vicious hunger. This movie doesn’t attempt to convey the full truth about anything. It’s a shallow and sharp vision that seeks to titillate and provoke. It’s not an indictment on beauty standards, it’s searching beauty both for beauty’s sake, and to mine it for darkness, to revel in the darkness and meanness a bit.
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