The Neon Demon – Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing:
My obsession with the works of Nicolas Winding Refn began in 2011 with Drive. His visual styling and sexual brutality moved me like no other director. Though, many others feel he merely hashes out mindless-self indulgence… He opened my eyes to an outre sphere of atmospheric ultra-violence and pornography. The man is a true visionary who wishes his viewers to experience his art. A true master of his craft with dreamy trickles of sexual tension. For Refn, it’s all about the experience, the reaction, and engaging in the viewers imagination. Refn has stated before that he does not feel Americans view his art differently but I disagree with this notion.
Neon Demon is said to be Refn’s most straight forward work of fiction, even more so than Bronson and Drive. Refn regurgitates older movies through his work but I am not sure if his intentions were to borrow ingredients from the films of Dario Argento, many critics have pointed out a connection with Suspiria due to the work of colors. There’s also a connection with French/Italian lesbian vampire films from the 1970’s. Jean Rollin’s Fascination definitely came to mind where a cult of females consume the blood of others to cure their anemia. Not that the two share the same plot but there are comparable elements along with snail-pacing eroticism. To say that pseudo vampires or clinical vampires are on display wouldn’t necessarily be arguable but a more viable comparison would be that of Mulholland Drive meets Black Swan meets Argento. Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace has made an appearance through debates but if there’s anything Neon Demon is not, it’s a giallo.
So what is The Neon Demon? The power of our protagonists’ beauty? The city of Los Angeles that will chew you up and spit you out? The fashion industry? It could be all of these things but Refn has said on occasion that Jesse is in fact The Neon Demon. The film opens with photographical carnage as we see our lead dead, lying on a couch with what appears to be her throat cut. The audience doesn’t know what has happened. We assume she is dead. Then, the camera slowly dollies out to present an isolating set. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old sitting duck who is new to Los Angeles and the modeling field. What happened to her parents is never made clear. She moves into a seedy motel run by a sleazy and monotone Keanu Reeves. To be fair, he did impress with John Wick. He didn’t offer any believability here. Any who, Jesse catches the eye of Christina Hendrick’s agency and an influential photographer portrayed by Desmond Harrington, who I’ve have had the hots for since Dexter. After these two sink their teeth into this young beauty, big time fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) nearly orgasms in his chair as he casts Jesse as the centerpiece of his newest show.
Jesse makes enemies fast as already established models Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) resent her for taking the spotlight. It’s understandable considering Jesse just moved into town and is already climbing to the top when these girls have been working hard to make a name for themselves. Still, Jesse’s innocence and awkwardness is no match for the two as they fire off insults about her dead parents and sex life or lack thereof. You cannot help but feel sorry for Jesse but as the film progresses you see the narcissism flowing through her. Gigi and Sarah are friends with makeup artist for the dead and the living Ruby (Jena Malone) who is actually the one who introduces the girls to Jesse after the opening gig. Ruby’s intentions do seem well-meaning at first but this is a film filled with characters that you cannot trust. Refn brilliantly created three different types of women; the artificial, the inner beauty, and the external beauty. I cannot explain the film further without spoiling it so I will save the plot explanation for the end of this review.
The male characters are the weakest links which is unusual in a Refn film considering it’s typically the opposite. The most likable male character would be the lead’s photographer boyfriend but he is just as hypocritical as the rest of the cast as he fails to explain why beauty isn’t everything and it’s all on the inside that counts. I’ve dated men like this. You cannot help but ask, if I didn’t look this way, would you even stop to notice? That’s exactly how fashion designer (Nivola) retorts. This guy also has no qualms with dating a 16-year-old which is just gross. Sadly, he is the only warming male character but if you’re one of these ass holes trying to prove that the “nice guys finish last” then kindly see your way to the door. The Neon Demon is clearly too much woman for your insecurity and re-digest the sentences above for clarification in case it didn’t sit. The director explain his reasoning behind the lack of male performances, “The male characters were like the girlfriends of other films. They’re plot devices. They’re there to tell a certain part of the story mechanically. In the end, the film is all about women.”
The first half of the film is glamorous and neon lit. The second half runs red in a dark reality where Jesse loses her innocence. There’s a thick use of colors red and blue with blue standing for the Greek myth Narcissus, reflecting Jesse’s own narcissism. As the colors transform to red, Jesse transforms into the almighty cover girl . Anytime you see the color red in this movie it stands for danger and if you pay close attention, there’s a heavy use of red for every time a particular character appears on screen. What’s perplexing to me is the fact that Refn is colorblind but he has the help of a truly talented cinematographer, Natasha Braier. This is a never-ending display of beauty, much like an issue of Vogue. It’s a superior study in elegantly manic style which gains from a beautiful female cast with illustrations that are conceived with a painterly eye and this team brings the full aesthetic promise of characters to life with absolutely transitory wanderings around mansions and neon lit runways with pale, naked skin dripping with blood. There are frozen formations, eye-piercingly white photo sessions, and golden glitter broadly paints the screen. Then there’s the triangle. The reasoning behind the triangle comes from James Turrell’s work. Look him up.
Finally, the performances from the entire female cast are impressive. Keep a close eye on subtle facial expressions and twitches. Naturally, you’d think I would offer a paragraph detailing the make-up effects and costume design. I’ll keep it short and sweet. Refn reached out to the highly inventive costume designer Erin Benach who provided an explosive 70’s glam that meticulously matched every setting and lighting AND the Armani blazers were a nice touch. The Neon Demon isn’t for everyone but I almost felt as if it was a love letter for people like myself who drool over glistening swimming pools, endless rows of skyscrapers that sparkle like diamonds in the sky, neon-soaked night clubs, stroboscopic performances of art, and pure nihilistic sex. This is all punctuated by Cliff Martinez’s electric score. This is a musical artist that never disappoints and his records sit proudly on my shelves.
** THE ENDING EXPLAINED. SPOILER ALERT. READ NO FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM**
If you read the original script, there are more supernatural tones taking place which better explain what is going on with elements of witch craft but Refn isn’t the type to put the answers on a platter and slide it on down to his viewers. He wants you to walk away shocked, scratching at your head. So let’s break this down quickly.
The notorious lesbian necrophilia scene: This was the only scene in the film that had me feeling uneasy as Jena Malone’s character Ruby spits into the corpses’ mouth and heavily makes out with it before groping and tribbing and possibly penetrating it? I haven’t been this grossed out since Nekromantik. Call me crazy but necrophilia has never been my thing. This scene was expanded at the last minute. Initially, she was only to kiss the body. Refn pushed the actress further and she complied. This was when Refn discovered the film’s true villain.
Then we get to this ‘ending’ that has the viewers conflicted. It’s really simple even if you have not read the script. Jesse is devoured by the three girls which is a visualization of an innocent girl being devoured by the fashion industry and the city. As a result to this feast, one of the girl’s bodies rejects Jesse and she kills herself. Ruby initiates a menstrual ceremony where she feels Jesse’s beauty flowering through her. As for Sarah, this is a woman who felt invisible but is finally noticed after ingesting Jesse. In the script, Sarah is the only one who survives. As for the regurgitated eye, Jesse’s eye is the first and last thing we see. So to speak.
A friend of the Dedman, Horror Society and the genre, Rebekah is an all world talent whether she is in front of or behind the camera. When she picks up the pen, she is even more deadly. Certainly one of the top genre writers, she manages to cover horror from a spectrum that fans of all aspects can appreciate and respect!
“Rebekah Herzberg has been living in Southeast Texas the majority of her life but has traveled to countries all over the world, including Israel where her parents do their work. Since she was a little girl, she has been exposed to cameras in her parents studio which is where her love for the camera began. Rebekah has been involved with ballet, jazz, tap, and acrobats since she was 2-years-old. In addition to dancing, she has stayed active in modeling and eventually worked her way up into the Indie horror scene after working on a couple of student films. Her film titles include; PRINCESS, STAY WITH ME, THE GOOD FRIEND, AND CIRCUS OF THE DEAD.
Rebekah was a host for Texas Frightmare Weekend in 2011 and continues to frequent conventions all over the US. She’s also the horror judge for the local Lagniappe Film & Music Festival based out of Beaumont, Tx and a Women in Horror Month Ambassador.”
In her downtime Rebekah is the VHS Vixen for Wicked Channel and True Crime Writer for Dreamin’ Demon. Collecting VHS is a passion for Rebekah and she currently owns 2, 000 horror films on VHS. Roller derby is another passion of hers with “Jewn Cleaver” being her nickname.”