“Beauty isn’t everything, it is the only thing.”
A prominent designer suggests this simple thesis around the midpoint of Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film, The Neon Demon, and all but one in the crowd surrounding him seem to completely accept this assertion as fact. Intended or not, this argument seems to extend beyond just its diegetic purpose, a simple phrase that is equally apt to summarize the viewpoints of those that valorize the Danish director and those who hold him in contempt. It comes off as even more ironic in the wake of the much maligned Only God Forgives, which encountered frequent jeers at Cannes and beyond for foregrounding style over substance, a nonexistent narrative and heavy handed attempts at symbolism. Regardless of your feelings on the director’s previous work, the arc of his career provides a very important backdrop to The Neon Demon, and one which had me begging the question: to what degree is The Neon Demon an attempt at autobiography—or at least at joining in by taking part in an odd, contradictory blend of self-criticism and indulgence on the part of the director?
First, on to a short summation of that pesky plot: The Neon Demon explores a short period of the life of sixteen-year old Jesse, an upcoming model and run away. According to the characters in the film that surround her, Jesse has this certain aura of beauty the completely overwhelms and seduces a number of her fellow Los Angeles residents, including amateur photographer and fling Dean, makeup artist Ruby, a very predatory photographer and the aforementioned Fashion Designer. Despite entrancing a good amount of the industry, her beauty, of course, attracts the jealousy of her peers, the “old” models Gigi and Sarah. Before continuing on to my main point, it is most definitely worth stopping and acknowledging the way that this film both indulges in and critiques the male gaze: these are women whose sole purpose seems to be to satisfy the cameras of their male counterparts. The opening shot of the film is a camera moving to and from Jesse, in bloody make up, as Dean stares through the lens of his camera. At the audition (if you could even call it that) for a modeling gig, Jesse, Sarah and a host of other nameless girls are made to sit in their underwear in a room, and do their walks in hopes that they might gain the attention of a fashion designer. And, after Jesse is first revealed to be underage a photographer makes her strip for him; The Neon Demon turns out to be a critique of the way women are made to be highly sexualized objects from a young age, and how this is reinforced through the emphasis that the way beauty their beauty allures men is the only manner in which they are useful. It is telling that the creepiest part of the film, at least for me, did not occur in the body horror filled final act, but was the part in which Elle was forced to strip, and the loud, pre-glitter slam that seemed to insinuate the worst. Though this was quickly rebuked, the film still begs the question of if what followed was truly better anyways, as Jesse was still taken advantage of afterwards. There’s an uneasy tension, however, as Refn’s eye still brings stunning, beautiful shots that often coerce and seduce us despite his criticism.
As with any film worth analyzing, this is not all The Neon Demon has to offer, as I’ll circle back to my main question. The film doubles down as a semi-autobiographical tale; especially in the wake of the much maligned Only God Forgives, it seems very personal and pointed that Refn focuses on beauty in such an outright manner. The world of The Neon Demon is one where a fashion designer can throw out the quote I began with, and only one person, Dean is briefly given the opportunity to stand by the attitude that inner beauty counts, to which the fashion designer scoffs and notes that he would not have even stopped for Jesse had she not been beautiful. This is an almost too good to be true moment in a film that has been accused of being shallow, or hollow, only aesthetics and razor thin characters. Notably, if we read the film as a comment on Refn’s carrer, it seems to be Jesse that the director most aligns himself with, not this shallow director. Jesse is reduced just to being beautiful in a way that Refn’s films have recently garnered ire for being all flare and no content. She repeatedly says that she can market her prettiness, despite Dean’s insistence there must be more she can do, much in the same way the director’s films have too often been reduced to pretty aesthetic shots devoid of meaning. It seems that, in the beginning, she differs from the other models, but at a fashion show she gratuitously makes out with herself. It’s almost laughable to see her stand on a diving board and proclaim that she is the beauty others wish to be, and her beauty makes her dangerous, but filtering this alongside Refn’s career lends more credence to it as a moment of false hubris that mirrors what My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn revealed about the production of Only God Forgives moreso than being a serious assertion. And for a director revealed to be nervous about following up Drive, seeing a person, reduced to a shallow symbol of beauty, getting (spoiler) literally chewed and spat out by the system only seems to more reflect the moment in his career after his brief stint of mainstream success, reducing himself to mostly to aesthetic and being completely rejected. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Jesse neither seems as alluring as she should be, nor that she causes her own downfall; these, to me, feel like moments of self-critique more than anything.
When I finished watching The Neon Demon, I was in utter disbelief about what I had seen, especially after such an odd turn at the end. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it yet, and I think the more I pull at the threads above, the more I feel that it might be one of the director’s more profound works, one that is built from a reflection on being reduced to a stylistic entity despite longing to be more—even Only God Forgives had its hackneyed attempts at symbolism, despite mostly aiming to graft the Drive aesthetic onto a new narrative. It feels like a film that will keep on giving with repeat viewings, as it layers numerous thematic issues for interesting analysis.