By Gabrielle Marceau
Neon Demon, William Winding Refn's latest film, is a bonkers fairytale of young models trying to make it in LA which feels more like a vision board than a film—a collage of imagery dense and strange and somehow still totally familiar. Actually, Neon Demon isn't strange, it follows a well trod psychoanalytic logic; self, mirror, id, sex, death. The film is sexy but contains no intercourse, only masturbation. The dialogue is so campy that if it weren't for the brilliant sound editing and music by Cliff Martinez, I'd say Neon Demon should have been silent.
Elle Fanning is unfortunately cast as Jessie, the rarest of all creatures—a pretty girl who knows she’s pretty. “What’s so bad about saying it?” she whines right before Ruby (Jenna Malone) pushes her off the deep end into an empty pool. Pretty white girls have been saying the same thing on tumblr for years, this isn’t insightful, it’s barely a Jezebel article.
Jesse is sixteen and has just moved to LA to become a model. Self love aside, Jessie has no skills, she only has pretty: “I can make money off of pretty”. But this is a ruse—and another nod to contemporary Tumblr girlhood à la Lana and Rihanna—no money is ever exchanged in the film (except between men, when Jessie’s lapdog Dean pays off the shady motel owner). Jessie doesn’t give a shit about money, her beauty isn’t currency, it’s the thing she would use money to buy. Or as the famous fashion designer in the film hyperbolizes: “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”.
Fellow yellow blonde model, Sarah (Abey Lee) asks Jessie what it feels like to be really, really pretty. “It’s everything” she replies. ‘It’s everything’ is a thing girls say about clothes, meals, songs, photographs, i.e. things that are too small and specific to in any way be all things. It is actually their specificity (their state as specifically good) that makes them everything. It’s not better than everything, it simply overwhelms the rest of things. Elle Fanning's prettiness is specific to her, and it indeed overwhelms everything else in her life, until her physical body itself is subsumed by it. (Although maybe the body is in fact the first thing to go).
We were early to the movie so my blonde friend and I got frozen Bellinis on the patio of a rooftop bar, they tasted like Fuzzy Peaches and were pilled up in the glass like a pyramid. Perched on top was a tiny figurine; on hers a bright orange elephant, on mine a neon green donkey. I held it up to the lights of the giant billboards and flashing screens of the street around us. We both love being up high and being in bars together. My blonde friend likes the way her pretty feels because it’s more of a feeling than a truth. She become like a mirror to the world around her: bright lights, saturated colours and candy drinks.
“She’s got that thing” Ruby says to Sarah and Gigi (played by the brilliant Bella Heathcote), sitting in an empty diner where they don’t eat. And there’s your problem. The film tries to convince you that Jesse is special, that her beauty—which is pure and rare (“nothing fake, nothing false”)—makes other girls look like hot garbage. Gigi is mocked by the fashion designer because her perfect face is plastic and therefore hideous. But Jesse’s superior beauty isn’t really that mysterious, she is simply younger (which Fanning plays to death in pastel dresses and a ridiculous little girl voice).
The film itself is like a perfect face, both hypnotic and maybe a little dull. For all it's strangeness, Neon Demon failed to make me uncomfortable (and I'm squeamish). Refn borrows heavily and frequently from other film oddities; Argento's Suspiria, Polanski's Repulsion, and particularly Clouzot's L'Enfer, a film which was never finished because Clouzot spent all his money on the screen tests. The models sit in red leather dinner booths and empty bars like they’re in some David Lynch film. That director is also all over Neon Demon, with echoes from Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but Refn's urge isn’t curious or strange, there's none of Lynch's raw nerve tenderness - no courage in its devotion. This film prefers a kind of flat immorality and cynical shock. Neon Demon looks candy coated but its heart is as black as midnight on a moonless night.
My friend had seen the film and called me long distance because it made her think of me. She listed over the phone: palm trees, LA, swimming pools, darkness, big cats... It’s true that Neon Demon pushes a lot of my buttons—if I had a favorite genre I might call it tropical noir—but I felt a little ashamed of my predictability, the fact that this film exists maybe means my obsessions have run themselves out?
Neon Demon does, however, play a great trick on this fetish. For most of the film, Jesse is in a fantasy of LA; she's at a photoshoot, framed by the deepest black and dripping in gold paint being slicked on in slow motion, or she is in an endless black room pulsing with flashing lights and claustrophobic synths, or she is on the hood of a convertible, looking out over the city, lavender tinted like her lavender dress. You start to think the world is this fantasy of impossible figures posed in ink black oceans. But cut to Jesse leaving the studio in a basic looking peasant dress and no makeup, and walking out into the un-photogenic traffic and sun bleached stucco of LA. It turns out that this dream world is just a lighting trick. Jesse is still beautiful in the light of day, but she really just looks like a lot of other girls. It's in these moments that LA doesn't feel like a soundstage or an amalgamation of metaphors and tableaus, but a place with a texture, history and the grind of coming and going. Gone are the razor sharp lines and unnatural lights of the rest of the film which give way to the jarring feel of the real. Yes LA is glamorous and weird, but actually living there probably feels like living in a lot of other places.
Refn hilariously came up with the idea for Neon Demon because his wife was tired of living for months on end in Asia to shoot his films (namely for 2013's Only God Forgives) and refused to leave her home in Copenhagen unless his new project would be shot in LA. And so I guess it's true that necessity is the mother of invention, and he came up with a film about a headstrong, tempestuous women.
Neon Demon looks insane. Every frame aches with colour - the coolest blues, the wildest greens, the bloodiest reds (I don’t work for Pantone but if I did I’d nominate this red as the colour of 2016). And this isn’t simply stylistic choice—Refn is colour blind and can’t see mid range colors, so everything has to be highly contrasted and super saturated. Each frame is so spectacular you feel as if you're getting closer to the sublime, to a kind of ecstatic visual experience. If Jesse’s face isn't quite convincing you that a singular, all consuming beauty exists, then the images in the film might—not a single one is false or casual, each is indelible and beyond gorgeous.
The spaces in these images are heavy with danger, but the girls visiting them are beyond self destruction, even beyond death drives. They are more like life stopped, embalmed. Death is more appealing to Jesse than sex—she rebuffs small town hopeful Dean and the amorous Ruby—she only desires herself, and that is more of a stasis than a acceleration. But, there is a scene where Jesse wakes in her room to find the motel owner (played for some unfathomable reason by Keanu Reeves) slowly inserting a knife into her throat, “Take it all” he coaxes. She wakes for real this times, it was just a fantasy. Here is a secret desire of hers, an image of violence that terrifies but maybe also turns her on.
The film has a sneaky payoff. After Ruby, Sarah and Gigi have killed Jesse in the swimming pool, we cut to Ruby sitting in a tub covered in fresh blood. She looks on as Gigi and Sarah shower off their own blood bath. Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian Countesse who supposedly tortured and murdered young virgins so she could bathe in their blood and maintain her youthfulness. (The number of victims ranges from 36 to 650). Elizabeth still grew old and died of course, so what did she possibly achieve in the meantime aside from solid goth status? Ruby killed Jesse because she desired her and was rejected, so why would she bathe in her blood? So she could be desired by others, or so she could desire herself? She beat Jesse sure, but when she watches her model friends showering her face isn't triumphant, it is the mix of contempt, lust and rage. The sting of Jessie's rejection lingers.
There's an incredible scene in the film in which Jesse has been chosen to close a coveted show for the famous designer. But instead of walking down a runway, Jesse wanders across an enormous prism. She arrives at the moment of connection, a meeting of selves. Not different parts of herself (good, bad etc..) but simply copies. She gazes at, conspires with, and kisses her other hers. It seems like she is looking at you, but she isn't, that is the gaze of someone looking in the mirror. The prism doesn't allow for any exit, each edge is looking in. There is no resolution, but rather a continual turn inwards and around—they don't call it a love triangle for nothing. Jesse is in the apex of her lust, and she just might stay there forever. This is the best sex scene of the film.