Viewers first encounter the protagonist of The Neon Demon in a precarious position. The young girl, thin and pale and blank, lays prone on a chaise longue, drenched in blood. She is wearing a party dress. Her throat is slit, the blood coagulating thick and dark, and the camera takes its time sliding across her body and zooming out. There is loud electronic music.
The girl is 16-year-old Jessie, played with a soft and steadfast confidence by Elle Fanning. She is not dead but rather modeling, and the film follows her dark journey through the Los Angeles fashion industry, where she quickly learns that her natural beauty is the rare kind that will open all the right doors and turn all the right heads — as well as the wrong ones.
The film comes from director Nicolas Winding Refn, known most widely for 2011’s stylish and adrenaline-fueled surprise hit Drive. With this latest effort, Refn paints a lurid, confused portrait of girlhood and the fashion industry that is flashy, loud, and gory but unfortunately fails at all turns to touch on anything close to truth.
The Neon Demon doesn’t understand women, nor does it seem to want to try
During a recent roundtable interview, Refn spoke with me about how The Neon Demon subverts traditional expectations of men and women. He told me that "the males were written as the girlfriends of other movies." And in an interview with Vulture, he declared the film "beyond feminist" because it is "all about women."
The problem with this statement is that neither The Neon Demon nor Refn seems to actually understand women. At all.
In addition to Jessie, who feels more like a wounded male’s idea of a 16-year-old girl — pure, soft-spoken and alluring, calculated and threatening in her self-awareness — the film also introduces us to Jena Malone’s Ruby, a gentle but intense and secretive makeup artist who immediately develops a strong interest in the young girl. As the film progresses, Ruby makes a series of less and less realistic decisions that undermine her character work while doing some notable damage to queer representation in media.
Elsewhere, Christina Hendricks is a bright spot, giving a solid, satirical take on an agent, but her expository scene is all too brief. Finally, we have a bevy of models jealous of how easily Jessie rises through the ranks of the industry. These bitter, beautiful people, scowling and slithering, are pure stereotype, their dialogue sounding like nothing I’ve ever heard come out of a real woman’s mouth.
A film made by a man that is entirely about men but understands its characters and represents them accurately — both as members of their gender and as unique individuals — is much less a failure to women than a film about women, made by a man, which misunderstands and misrepresents women on every level, repulsively warping the ways they engage with the world and why.
At one point in The Neon Demon, Jessie tells a story about how her mother used to call her "a dangerous girl." She was right, Jessie says, "I am dangerous."
It’s a common narrative. Young girls are raised to believe that their appearance makes them dangerous. That they "look like trouble." That their bare shoulders will distract boys from learning. That ungluing their knees from one another when they are sitting is both a threat to men and an invitation. These are lies. But The Neon Demon believes they are universal truths, which makes it difficult to take seriously.
Style doesn’t trump narrative and tonal flaws, especially when it relies on flash and shock value
What makes Refn’s best work (see: Drive) so successful is a combination of energy and well-modulated tone. Certainly his direction has always been notable for its emphasis on style, but as he would surely say himself, style can be awfully empty. If a film’s only goal is to be stylish, it might as well be a music video, and that’s what most of The Neon Demon feels like: a collection of flashy, colorful, high-concept music videos for songs that are dragged down by at least a couple of minutes of dull, self-satisfied noodling instrumental filler.
At one minute shy of two hours, the film is far too long and indulgent; the narrative is a meandering, joyless mess. During the roundtable, Refn admitted to that, in a sense, explaining that the protagonist and antagonist switch at the halfway point — which also marks the switch from "melodrama" to "horror film" — but that doesn’t make the tonal and narrative transitions any more graceful or, frankly, logical.
The result is a series of disconnected vignettes. In one moment, The Neon Demon is a bloated, hallucinatory prep session for a runway show; then it’s a smiley face with Xs for eyes being resentfully scrawled onto a mirror with lipstick. (Refn’s female characters spend an inordinate amount of time gazing into mirrors.) All of a sudden, we’re supposed to be invested in side characters who, just like that, have become sadistic protagonists.
Meanwhile, the thread of Keanu Reeves’s motel owner character, a grotesque individual who makes vile sexual noises at Jessie and encourages her boyfriend to direct his attention to a 13-year-old girl in the next room ("real Lolita shit," he says), is mysteriously dropped in favor of brutalizing girl-on-girl body horror, right around the time he escalates his behavior to far more terrifyingly villainous acts. (You’d be tempted to call him a caricature, if not for the upsetting truth that men exactly like him are plentiful in the real world.)
Whatever horrors men can inflict on women, The Neon Demon tells us, are no match for what cruelties women will commit against each other because they’re pretty and narcissistic.
If you’ve seen the film’s trailer or know anything about Refn as a director, you know there’s going to be blood. Refn is giddy for shock tactics, positively gleeful over the reaction this film — with its "cannibalism," "lesbian necrophilia" and "deep-throating [of] a knife" — has received so far.
However, the only truly shocking thing about The Neon Demon is how Refn, a middle-aged straight white man with wealth, power, and influence, can be so absolutely convinced that it’s young girls who are the real threat in today’s beauty-obsessed society.
The film is fundamentally mistaken in its belief that women control the fashion world — and the world at large
In one early scene, Fanning’s Jessie visits the set of a renowned fashion photographer with whom, Jessie is told, she is lucky to be working. He clears everyone else out of the room for a "closed set," rebuffing Ruby, who cares for Jessie and offers to stay in a clear attempt to avoid leaving a young girl alone with an aggressive man in a position of power. In the lengthy scene that follows, the photographer forces Jessie to strip completely naked, shuts off all the lights, and slathers her with gold paint by hand, lingering on her neck and collarbones.
Jessie obliges at every turn, cautious and tense at first but ultimately resolved. Recounting the story to Ruby, she has nothing but praise for the photographer. Refn, in our interview, explains that the photographer "uses the women as pure props" but that "he’s not doing it out of evil or anything degrading. He’s just feeding a higher machine."
The director did not see an issue with an underage girl tragically participating in her own exploitation by a clear Terry Richardson stand-in because she’s been treated her whole life as though her appearance is her only asset. Rather, he saw an innocent middle-aged man feeding a "machine" run exclusively by women. "Is she an evil Dorothy or is she a deer in headlights?" Refn asks me. "Is she evil? Is she going into this knowing what’s going to happen?"
When I pointed out to Refn that the beauty industry being aimed at women is a wholly different thing from industry standards and behaviors being created and controlled by women, he disagreed: "If you look at all the fashion magazines, they are edited by women."
Well, sure, there are women in the fashion industry. But rarely are they the ones with the most power. Anna Wintour is the editor in chief of Vogue, which is owned by Condé Nast. A woman editing a magazine founded and owned by men is not a sign that women control an industry.
Perhaps more significantly, CEO World Magazine found that of the 11 richest fashion moguls in America according to Forbes’s 400 billionaires list in 2014, only three were women, and two of those three women were part of husband-and-wife teams that counted as one entry. The CEOs of the biggest beauty companies in the world are predominantly men. And according to a 2009 story in the Independent, women occupy only a third of the UK’s top fashion jobs. There’s a reason women are faced with an onslaught of sexually explicit fashion ads, and it’s not other women.
The Terry Richardsons and predatory motel owners of the world are plentiful, yet Refn has chosen to make a film whose chief argument is that a 16-year-old girl believing she’s beautiful is a crime of ego and hubris that deserves of punishment by death. And if it’s not the narcissism (which apparently is completely unique and limited to teenage girls) that earns her suffering, then it’s her other "crime" in the film — rejecting sexual advances.
Watching The Neon Demon, and later speaking with Refn, I was reminded of a recent news story: A teen girl was allegedly killed by a boy of the same age who was angry at her for breaking up with him. CBS News, adding insult to injury, called the suspected murderer a "teen" and the victim a "woman."
Refn and his film are right: Danger goes hand in hand with being a teen girl — just not in the way Refn thinks.
The Neon Demon is playing in theaters throughout the country.