Is it possible for a film set in the world of high fashion to be too superficial?
That is very much the crux around which Neon Demon pivots. Nicolas Winding Refn is a glorious stylish director with a strong visual sense and a provocative attitude. Thematically, his films tend to touch upon broad ideas like the correlation that exists between masculine identity and violence. It is familiar ground for anybody who has ever watched a film, followed a television show, read a book or even browsed a newspaper. Refn doesn’t necessarily do anything novel or compelling when it comes to his subject matter.
Instead, Refn offers a striking aesthetic that is lush and overwhelming. It is too much to suggest that Refn’s films would work just as well (or even better) with the volume turned down low. After all, Cliff Martinez’s scores are a key part of the appeal of Drive and Only God Forgives. More than that, the blunt metaphorical “nobody in the history of the world has ever talked like this” dialogue is very much part of the appeal. Characters in Neon Demon converse around one another, talking in abstracts and affectations. It is a pure pulpy delight.
At the same time, Neon Demon brushes up against its own limitations. When Refn draws on archetypal female characters, he seems to fall back on shallow sexist caricatures. “Are you food or are you sex?” one character asks young model Jesse early in the film. The movie suggests its own alternative (and sadly all too conventional) dichotomy. Refn’s female characters are reductive and crudely formed; just like his male characters. However, the reduction of the female characters in Neon Demon is much more problematic than that of his male characters.
Neon Demon is acutely aware of just how stylish it is. The opening credits appear across a textured surface. That surface might be the ice, reflecting the coldness necessary to succeed in the world of high fashion. That surface might be plastic, to reflect the false veneers that are applied to “bionic women” chewed up and devoured by the system. The particulars do not really matter. Refn lights that block of textured material alternating shades of red and blue as the synthesiser howls. Even the film’s opening credits feel like excess.
The big moment comes at the end of the opening credits. As the “… and Keanu Reeves” credit fades from view, glitter begins to rain down across the screen. It sparkles, it flows, it catches the eye. Down the bottom of the screen, the tiered initials “N.W.R.” are visible. This is a monogram, a brand. It exists quite distinct from the “directed by…” or “film by…” credit that Nicolas Winding Refn receives at the very start of the credits. Instead, it feels like the label applied to a perfume bottle. “Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Aesthetic by N.W.R.”
The opening credits set the tone of the film that follows. It seems like everything of import in Neon Demon unfolds on a spectrum between blue and red, their varying intensities suggesting the visceral power of a given sequence. The blue of the pool or the ocean. The red of an industrial warehouse party. The blue of a classy dress. The red of lipstick. The blue of soothing interior photographs in a fancy beach house. The red of some questionable internal lighting fixtures. Jesse’s new fast fashion friend is literally named “Ruby.”
It seems as if Neon Demon is set in a pulpy alternate world where even the light spectrum is “off.” In some ways, this colour palette speaks to the affections of Neon Demon. Refn structures the film as an absurdist neon gothic vampire film. The red is obviously blood. The first shot of Jesse finds the young model strewn across a couch, covered in red as if her throat has been cut open. When Jesse finds herself physically assaulted by a male photographer, the camera fixates upon his hands on her throat.
There are other vampire movie touches. Refn contrasts the darkness of the fashion world (with its strobe-lit warehouse parties and black runways) against the sun-drenched surroundings of Los Angeles. Make-up artist Ruby moonlights as a mortician, as if to suggest that she is still working with meat. The movie’s third act takes Jesse to a strange abandoned mansion. There is a heavy thematic emphasis on the power of the moon and the sway that it seems to hold over Jesse.
To be fair, there are obvious points of thematic overlap between vampire films and the world of high fashion. Neon Demon has a great deal of fun with mirrors, for example; Refn repeatedly and consciously positions reflections in a way that invites viewers to find something “off” about them. More than that, there is the theme of perpetual youth tied to sexual desire; both fashion and vampirism tease provocative sexual desire. Even more than that, there is the metaphorical (and perhaps literal) reduction of human beings to food that can be consumed or drained.
Neon Demon is heavily saturated with those reds and blues. There are purples and pinks to be found across the film, along with blacks and whites. However, there is little room from greens or yellows; with the exception of one key scene that hinges on gratuitous application of gold body paint. Maybe that’s why Jesse’s hair is so striking to the rest of the cast; Elle Fanning’s blonde hair appears almost a virginal white in the context of the film’s colour palette. It seems to exist contrary to the laws of physics of the film around it.
Then again, this is very much in keeping with the style of the film. Neon Demon is a gaudy and unapologetic horror film. The deep reds are a part of that, as is the wonderfully atmospheric score from Cliff Martinez. The film is disconnected from this (or any other) reality, to the point that the characters seem to be speaking a strange a slightly alien version of English. “I don’t want to become them,” reflects Jesse at a moment of philosophical enlightenment. “They want to become me.” Don’t worry about what it actually means, it sounds right for the film around it.
If the light in the world of Neon Demon seems to exist primarily on a spectrum from blue to red, then the same might be said of everything else in the context of the movie. Neon Demon is a film that is very interested in binary positions. The most obvious – and striking – of these comes early on, after Jesse has just met Ruby. Remarking on how the most successful lipsticks are named for food or sex as an expression of feminine identity, Ruby challenges to Jesse to declare whether she is food or sex.
This is very much where Neon Demon stumbles. It could reasonably be argued that Nicolas Winding Refn is a director who deals in familiar archetypes. His men are often troubled and violent, stock pulp characters. This worked very well in Drive and Only God Forgives, which offered unsettling explorations of masculine violence. However, when Refn chooses to draw upon pulpy feminine archetypes for Neon Demon, he falls back on a number of uncomfortable and problematic clichés. Jesse seems caught between “virgin” and “whore”, “food” and “sex.”
The portrayal of violent masculinity in Drive and Only God Forgives is not so much an issues because there are far more diverse portrayals of masculinity to be found in contemporary culture. More than that, there are incredibly thoughtful and insightful explorations of violent masculinity that have deconstructed and reconstructed the archetype in contemporary culture. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, among others, have added a lot of depth and nuance to what is a fairly stock pulp archetype.
In contrast, female characters have struggled to receive the same development and exploration. There are dozens of statistics that demonstrate that women are underserved when it comes to diversity in representation and also in the focus that they are afforded. As such, Refn’s decision to fall back on the archetype of “virgin or whore” in Neon Demon is a great deal more problematic than his use of “violent and masculine” in films like Drive and Only God Forgives. This creates a lot of potentially problems for Neon Demon.
There is a sense that Refn is trying to have his cake and eat it here. Towards the climax of the film, Jesse gets a big speech about how her mother always called her “a dangerous girl.” Jesse’s allure is cast as both sexual and asexual at the same time. Jesse’s allure to a pervy professional photographer is definitely coded as sexual, as is her relationship with Ruby. At the same time, there is more to it; her relationship with her “not really” boyfriend Dean is asexual, the film makes it clear that Jesse is a virgin, and her first big show comes from a gay fashion designer.
However faintly Neon Demon might try to hedge its bets, the film is still explicitly terrified of Jesse’s nascient sexuality. Jesse effectively “awakens” inside a pyramid of mirrors wherein her darker self stirs to the surface after the young model makes out with her own reflection. Large dangerous cats recur through the film, an embodiment of dangerous female sexual identity. Jesse’s room is torn apart by a cougar early in the movement. Ruby’s true colours (red, naturally) come out with a stuffed large cat framed on the mantlepiece behind her.
More than that, Neon Demon seems to suggest that the true immediate danger to Jesse comes from other women. Over the course of the film, Jesse finds herself competing against model Gigi. Following their first encounter at a warehouse party, Gigi begins to worry that she is being replaced or supplanted by Jesse. The aggression is initially verbal, but the film quickly escalates matters. Whereas Jesse is quite able to manage herself against masculine predators, Neon Demon treats its female characters as the most dangerous.
There is an uncomfortable subtext to all of this that reads as borderline misogynistic. Neon Demon is a film concerned with the grotesque sexualisation of a young girl, but it is primarily fixated upon the dangers that women pose to one another. The male characters along the way are merely stepping stones towards a climax that plays into all sorts of sexist stereotypes about how women visciously compete with one another rather than collaborating and cooperating. On a visceral level, there is something discomforting about all this.
However, there is also a sense that Refn is cheekily trolling his audience. While the male characters in the film are peripheral, Neon Demon repeatedly emphasises their power and influence. Alessandro Nivola plays a fashion designer who is able to destroy Gigi without even speaking to (or even really looking at) her directly. Keanu Reeves plays a sleazy motel owner who holds Jesse to economic ransom, with the movie repeatedly emphasising how powerless she is against him. Desmond Harrington is a creepy photographer never challenged for his depravity.
These male figures exist at arm’s length from the film’s action, but that seems to be the point of it all. Neon Demon is acutely aware of the male gaze. Early in the film, Jesse confesses that she used to think of the moon as “a big round eye” that was staring down at the world. “Can you see me?” she remembers asking. The moon’s gaze is implicitly male. Indeed, all of the models in Neon Demon are explicitly competing for the male gaze. Even when it is never explicitly mentioned, it hangs over the film.
There is a recurring sense that Neon Demon is a film engaged with ambient misogyny. If its female characters are turning on one another, it is only because the male characters (and a male industry) have built a world where that is the norm. Tellingly, Gigi’s anger towards Jesse only solidifies when she is rejected by male figures. First, the fashion designer refuses to even look at her during her audition; later, the fashion designer makes her pose for Jesse’s “not really” boyfriend so that the young man can reject her as “fine” in comparison to Jesse.
(This is perhaps most apparent in Christina Hendricks’ short cameo as modelling agent Roberta Hoffman. Roberta is very much part of the system, casually accepting or dismissing young girls for admission into the world of fashion. She is a very much a predatory enabler, advising Jesse on how best to get ahead rather than looking out for her well-being. However, Roberta is still just a cog in the machine. Her primary role is to shepherd these young girls into the stewardship of male photographers who will then make or break them.)
Refn even seeks to make the audience complicit in this predatory system. A male director working on a film centring on a predominantly female cast, Refn consciously steers into the male gaze. The audience is cast as the moon staring down at Jesse, viewing its characters through the heavily sexualised lens of contemporary fashion. This is most obvious at the climax of the film, when two beautiful models clean blood off themselves in a sequence that lingers on their bodies in such a way as to be virtually pornographic. Neon Demon intends it to be sickening and provocative.
Of course, it is tough to tell just how much of this is intentional. As with a lot of Refn’s work, it is hard to tell whether the director is being entirely ironic or self-aware. It is entirely possible that the film is just as misogynistic and sexist as it appears on the surface, but it is just likely that there is more going on underneath. At times, as the film comes together in its final act, it seems like even Refn himself is not sure what exactly he is trying to say about his characters and their world. Still, he says it with an unmistakable style.
Perhaps there is biting commentary there, perhaps it is merely shadows on ice. Or plastic.