Blood on the Catwalk in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon
France, Denmark, USA, 2016/ Cert. 18/ 118 mins
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks.
When Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological horror, The Neon Demon, was screened at Cannes earlier this year, it simultaneously provoked booing and applause from the gathered press. Refn’s films have an interesting habit of dividing the critics: his 2013 thriller Only God Forgives received a similar reaction when it was entered for the Palme d’Or and, as Refn himself has pointed out, Drive (2011), his most acclaimed and accessible film to date, received mixed reviews on its release. In the case of The Neon Demon, such diversity of opinion is hardly surprising as it is an intentionally provocative film, however, its exploitational shocks ought not to fool us into thinking the film is not worthy of attention. Its relentlessly lurid blood and gore and transgressive sexual content make The Neon Demon a stylish and perverse work of cinematic art.
The film opens with wannabe model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), wearing a bright blue PVC dress and draped over a chaise longue, with what seems to be blood from a neck wound oozing down her chest and arms. We discover that the blood is fake and that this is merely a photo shoot, an opportunity to build Jesse’s portfolio to assist her to gain a foothold in the fashion industry. The aspiring photographer is a friend, Dean (Karl Glusman), who tentatively starts a relationship with Jesse only to be cruelly rejected later in the film. Dean represents the film’s only portrayal of human decency; a moral compass in a society dominated by callousness, self-promotion and narcissism.
The innocent, virginal Jesse lodges in a seedy, run-down Los Angeles motel which is managed by Hank, sleazily played by Keanu Reeves. We begin to ask questions about Hank’s dubious character when he asks if Dean might be interested in ‘some real Lolita shit’, and have sex with a thirteen-year-old runaway girl who is staying at the motel. Hank also forces Jesse to pay for damages to her room after it is wrecked by a large wild cat that has escaped from the zoo, the first scene to suggest a surreal juxtaposition between twisted fantasy and reality which will recur throughout the film. Even more disturbing is a dream-sequence where Hank sneaks into Jesse’s room whilst she is asleep and forces her to swallow a large knife as if performing fellatio. Later someone- possibly Hank- attempts to break in to Jesse’s room but, thwarted in his attempt, goes into the thirteen-year-old-girl’s room next door instead to attack and rape her. The assault occurs off-screen, heard by a distressed Jesse through the walls of the motel. The motel and its manager therefore represent the predatory underbelly of L.A. which is seen to be not to dissimilar in nature to the fashion industry itself.
Jesse finds work at a top modelling agency and when she informs the owner, Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks), that she is sixteen she is told to lie and say she is nineteen. (In an interesting case of mimesis, Fanning was also only sixteen years of age when The Neon Demon was filmed in 2015). Hoffman then sends Jesse off to an intimidating test shoot with the renowned photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington), who calls for a closed shoot and orders her to undress. Before she strips, Jesse is framed in the centre of the shot with a completely white background to emphasise her virginity and inexperience and as she takes off her clothes the camera remains fixed upon her face in close-up, capturing her vulnerability. Jack then turns of the lights and the screen is engulfed in almost complete darkness until the photographer smears gold paint over Jesse’s body. Despite the menacing nature of this sequence, the shoot proves to be a success and as Jesse’s career takes off she becomes increasingly confident and self-obsessed, transformed from the sweet naïf seen at the film’s outset struggling to come to terms with the industry’s immorality into a beautiful egotist who, it seems, is more than capable of matching her colleagues, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi’s (Bella Heathcote) contemptuous ambition.
Jesse is drawn into the L.A. fashion social scene by her make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who initially suggests she wants to protect her from the more corrupt aspects of the business. It is Ruby who introduces Jesse to Sarah and Gigi at a party which turns into a Japanese bondage show. The two models are both fascinated and jealous by Jesse’s youth and beauty as Sarah is regarded as being too old for modelling and Gigi represents a fake beauty owing to the amount of surgery she has had done to fulfil the needs of the industry. Both models appear threatened by Jesse’s natural good looks and attempt to demean her, whereas when Ruby makes up Jesse there is suggestion that she is sexually attracted to the model and this is confirmed later when Ruby tries to initiate sex with her. This forceful and clumsy attempt at seduction leads into The Neon Demon’s most notorious scene. Ruby moonlights as a make-up specialist at a morgue and when she is treating the corpse of an attractive female she becomes sexually aroused, climbing on top of the dead body to have sex with the corpse whilst a cross-cut of Ruby’s thought processes show us she is fantasising about Jesse as she masturbates.
In addition to lesbian necrophilia, as The Neon Demon progresses Refn steadily racks up the nudity and gore, referencing familiar horror tropes of vampirism, cannibalism and necromancy along the way to transform the film into a deeper, unsettling psychological study- a kind of The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006) with graphic sex and violence. If The Neon Demon can be read as an exposé of the fashion industry, then it is one which has been imbued with the symbolism of Luis Buñuel and suffused with Giallo imagery. There is one moment in the film when Jesse is pursued around an L.A. mansion and, in fear for her life, she takes a large knife to defend herself. In this sequence, Refn pays homage to Dario Argento as the rooms and corridors are vividly lit in red and appear as though they could have been lifted straight from Argento’s Suspiria (1977). The film is strikingly shot throughout, utilising saturated colour with vibrant blues and reds prominent and the cinematographer Natasha Braier and lighting, set and costume designers have done a tremendous job in creating such a stylish and memorable look for the film.
The Neon Demon also clearly references Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928) in its symbolism. During their short-lived romance, Jesse says to Dean how as a child she would climb onto the roof of her parents’ house to stare at the moon which she imagined to be a giant eye and the moon and eye are symbolic images conjured up regularly in the film. At one point, Ruby is seen performing some sort of occult ritual, laying naked under the full moon with blood gushing from between her legs. The scenes of flowing blood are reminiscent of The Shining (1980) and there is a further nod to Kubrick’s film when Jesse is informed that the shade of lipstick she is wearing is named Redrum. In addition to The Shining, there also features a hallucinatory sequence which suggests that Jesse may be losing her grip on reality with human hands growing from the walls of the room, echoing Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). The fact that The Neon Demon’s cinematic influences are clearly on display does not detract from the film’s originality, however, as it follows the auterist patterns of Refn’s previous films in its emphasis on visual style and depiction of extreme subject matter. Whilst many may baulk at Refn’s slick, chic and sick take on the modelling world and the nature of beauty, its formal brilliance cannot be ignored.
As befitting for a horror film with its subject matter, The Neon Demon suggests that the fashion world is a zombie industry which is dangerously out of control, pointing to lengths that the models in the industry will go: either under the knife in an attempt to achieve physical perfection- like Gigi or, as hinted by the narrative arc of the film, practising witchcraft to achieve success. Jesse’s rapid rise to prominence on the catwalk is prompted by a top fashion designer played by Alessandro Nivola in an uncredited role. With an inclination to philosophise, the designer declares ‘beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’, promoting Jesse to close one of his shows. Jesse’s appearance on the catwalk marks the turning point in the narrative, confirming the aspiring model’s potential star quality and highlighting a transformation in her personality as she is seen narcissistically kissing her own reflection in a mirror. As Jesse stands on the catwalk she appears to have an out of body experience, standing in a trance-like state as she watches herself perform. Is this reality we are seeing or merely a projection of Jesse’s fantasies? Prominent on the catwalk is a strange, glowing triangular neon structure which is at first an electric blue and then changes to a vivid red. Framed centrally in the shot with the rest of the screen in darkness, is this portentous structure the titular Neon Demon? Or is it some kind of portal to another dimension of reality? The neon structure and the entire scene itself is rich in symbolic meaning, possessing a delirious, surreal quality which is complemented by the use of strobe lighting, the striking use of colour and Cliff Martinez’s minimal electronic soundtrack.
After Jesse’s strange encounter on the catwalk with the Neon Demon, events turn increasingly violent and the story becomes more ambiguous. The mixed reaction to The Neon Demon could be accountable to this ambiguity and the fact that the film is generically difficult to pin down. It may be considered too outré and for some tastes on the one hand whilst being too abstruse for some horror aficionados on the other. However, there is enough blood-soaked nubile flesh on display here to keep most discerning fans of exploitation cinema happy. The Neon Demon is arthouse exploitation, coming across like a particularly visceral and recherché Hammer horror on Viagra.
I couldn’t watch this film, with its thematic engagement with the objectification of feminine beauty, without thinking back to Laura Mulvey’s ground-breaking 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which combined psychoanalysis and feminism to introduce to cinema studies the theory of “the male gaze”. However, in The Neon Demon, and especially its grotesque, stomach-churning conclusion, Refn isn’t content to merely show us “the gaze”. Instead his film ingests it and vomits it back up.