The Neon Demon

Few of us, I suspect, have ever met models on the level of those on display in The Neon Demon, who destroy themselves as self-indulgence, who have de-rationalized the idea of having a human body. They could not indulge on the level of Nicolas Winding Refn, not if they vandalized themselves to their bones for the sake of a better complexion. He directs a nothing story about jealous fashion models as though none of his frames represent anything less than the known universe: to get this lofty, Kubrick had to use title inserts like “the dawn of man” and “beyond the infinite.” Refn sees these inserts to be implied at a lingerie unveiling and in the sheets of an emaciated motel. He academizes silence. He is the great critic James Agee’s worst nightmare – he who preached for a “pure” movie, a cinema that could resist the intellect, would recoil from Refn’s work. This is a director who thinks so hard that even peaceful images taste like gore.

The Neon Demon feels like an indictment – predictably, of the cat-eat-cat underground world of fashion modeling, or at least, how those of us who have never seen it must think of it. But what Refn intends to indict seems to be more deeply felt than that. He has a little Takeshi Miike in him: when I watch a Refn film I feel as I did after Gozu, that more of myself was being displayed and dissected into mythology than I was comfortable knowing about. The Neon Demon shares with Miike a Grecian passion for allegory, telling a story of envy as a clash of idols in an uncertain realm. This film speaks through its eyes. It’s not really a movie with “characters.” It more resembles a statue gallery: Refn might be an over-imaginative child walking through it, making up the life and times of the stone prisoners cursed to stare at each other forever.

Like statues, the characters in Refn’s film are less defined by their actions than their posture, or their “gesture,” which is a term in the art world for drawing a figure’s stance without focusing on its image. To do so makes you obsessed with movement and weight. So when I say that The Neon Demon is perfectly cast, I mean less in the sense that everyone looks right as that the gesture is correct. Elle Fanning is so witheringly sexy as Jesse not because she physically compares favorably to Australian model Abbey Lee Kershaw and actress Bella Heathcote (her main competition in the film), but because she so effortlessly acts with the posture of someone who does. Elle stands like she’s already in marble, leaned on a pedestal. She’s nymphic where the others are harsh and crude: they are beautiful but with too much conscious effort. They wear their surgery scars on their sleeves. The world’s most significant fashion couture in the film – to The Neon Demon he seems no less than God – calls Jesse “completely natural.” Her beauty isn’t just something the others don’t have: it’s something they can’t hope to acquire. It’s not that they aren’t beautiful but that they don’t move through the world like a beautiful thing. Elle isn’t just nymphic: she comes with her own waterfall.

She towers in this film, as someone who is too beautiful to notice it. She has this absent innocence that somehow manifests as arrogance when the world handles it for too long: Sissy Spacek had it too, without the pretensions of so much beauty. The Neon Demon recalls Carrie somewhat, in that a young girl becomes a victim to her inability to do anything to deserve it, but it reminds me more of Robert Altman’s 3 Women. That film concerned a power struggle of identity, as one girl (Spacek) became so attached to another (Shelley Duvall) that she hoped to consume her identity and make it her own. Altman also predicts the trancelike photography of Refn, who uses the surfaces of pools and mirrors to distort people into what he’s trying to say about them. Refn assembles a movie like an orator assembles an old tale by fireside. He tells it in symbols.

Jesse’s motel (one wonders that she never upgrades) provides a scene of disturbed wonderment. She hears an intruder and calls the manager (a perfect Keanu Reeves, whose handsomeness always deceives his own bad acting; rarely is that fact as savory as with this grotesque everyman, who might have been a movie star if only he could act as handsome as he is). When they go looking, they find a mountain lion in her sheets, lit by the moon. Jesse believes she sees someone pushing through the walls (as through a plastic bubble – we see the impression of their fingers) and wakes up. This means that it was a dream, but in Refn’s world, those are no better and no worse than what she has for breakfast. His characters are made entirely of such dreams.

The Neon Demon is full of shots of nature – to some viewers they will be provocative and to others they will be languishing. It’s possible to consume this film and let it pass: like Under the Skin, but not as well-metered, this movie may mystify those who hope it will start being familiar. Consider the runway sequence alone. This elongated, wordless scene exposes Jesse’s confidence in her own beauty; it crystalizes her into the fashion world’s ideal of vanity. It shows herself to herself repeatedly, framed by the hard edges of triangles, standing in pyramidal doorways, strobed with camera flashes, obsessed with a cultish triangle floating in the darkness. It takes the simple notion that she is transformed by her first runway and extrapolates an eternity out of it, of signs and gazes and chilly self-love. Cliff Martinez's music recalls outer space and techno-punk; the images convince the sounds to remind us of Blade Runner, which was also obsessed with eyes and pyramids, synthetics and change. Star Wars: The Last Jedi contained a scene with similar ambitions: the heroine sees herself reflected in many mirrors, in a place dark enough to force her to change. No, The Neon Demon has no action or plot. But consider how some directors have made images whimper and how others have made them roar. As with the models, it isn’t the content or the meaning that matters but the pose.

I can’t help but see Refn’s arrogance, equal to his subject matter’s, when he composes such a scene. It can be felt elsewhere when symbols work their way into your brain, forcing the kind of analysis that critics dislike terribly (The Neon Demon holds a soggy 57% on Rotten Tomatoes). Perhaps such an artist needs his arrogance, and perhaps he shouldn’t have to, as Jesse shouldn’t have to metamorphose into a bitch to fit into her world. But he can’t resist it and neither can I. We’re introduced to Jesse dressed like a scene out of her own death, forming a seductive triangle with her leg, and we see the triumvirate of her enemies (which also includes Jena Malone, a fashion designer whom we imagine once aspired to be a god, and now settles for painting their perfect bodies). In the director’s commentary, Refn calls this “the world of the triangle,” and we could draw out the Greek letter delta, a triangle, for its ability to signify change, and as the source of a river, and as sexual power, and on and on (H. Perry Horton wrote an almost admirably over-extracted article about it called “Deltas and Doorways” and even the conspiracy site Vigilant Citizen wrote an analysis of it: Refn has made a film, I don’t doubt with pride, that can only be fully analyzed from the perspective of a conspiracy). Jesse mentions the “all-seeing eye” at one point and I will not ignore, but also not spoil, that eyes play a major part in the film’s grueling finale.

Does The Neon Demon mean anything? It does but in a literal sense: another director might have had the pretension to make it about "everything," and Refn prefers to let the images stand as anything, so long as they shock and intrigue you when they play out. It's less pleasurable for him to make a movie that treasures its characters until they mean something, than to trash them for the sake of meaning anything. This is what defines him as a filmmaker, if not a great one. Whatever the images provoke in your mind: that's what The Neon Demon means. Though Refn’s characters believe that what is natural is beautiful, this is not so in Refn’s movies: he makes them as counterexamples of themselves, full of dreamy trickery and arcane violence. He’s obsessed with geometry, and exploits it for sexual pleasure. He makes our entire world his deviant. Even films more obviously wrong-minded (see Jim Hosking), are more conventional because they could be saying something: Refn is concerned with images only, in the way the ancients must have been, and what happens to us when we see them play out in a particular way. He predicts our future with the clouds and reads the weather in piles of bones. He’s a seer, though his movies may not see. Spending an evening with him is enlightening, even if he only enlightens us to his own mind. Anyone would be too afraid to learn more than that.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn (story and screenplay)

Mary Laws (screenplay)

Polly Stenham (screenplay)


Jesse Elle Fanning
Dean Karl Glusman
Ruby Jena Malone
Gigi Bella Heathcote
Sarah Abbey Lee
Hank Keanu Reeves
Jack McCarther Desmond Harrington

Official Trailer


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