There is a paradox in beauty in that it attracts the eye, it dominates attention for being nothing but itself but because of the attention it draws, the time and energy it demands, we want it to mean more, to be more satisfying. For some, this means rejecting sustenance in order to make beauty sustenance, through force of will make it into food, sex, and love. Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2016 film The Neon Demon is, as many critics have said, another tale of shallow Hollywood but, while it quite consciously draws from influences, to dismiss it for covering well trodden ground is a mistake. This film is one of the most beautiful movies of the decade and for me that’s all it needed to be. It could’ve been a series of meaningless images. But it tells a story far subtler than people give it credit for.
I wasn’t deterred from seeing the film by its 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, partly because I’ve enjoyed Winding Refn’s other films regardless of their reviews. I thought if people didn’t like the film, that was fair, maybe it’s not to their taste. But after seeing it, I actually read some of the reviews and I was surprised by how exceptionally brainless they are. This review by Amy Nicholson is a good example. She criticises the dialogue and wonders “if writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) has ever met a real girl.” Considering the screenplay was written by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham along with Winding Refn I would suppose that, yes, he has met at least two women. But okay, women are capable of writing women badly, too. So what is this dialogue Nicholson’s complaining about?
They bond, or attempt to, by droning, “I hear your parents are dead. That must be really hard for you.”
Nicholson completely misses the subtext of the comment which wasn’t about bonding but about trying to wound the main character, Jesse (Elle Fanning).
You could say Jesse is like Betty in Mulholland Drive or Agatha in Maps to the Stars, the innocent kid coming from out of town who’s out of her depth among the sharks of Hollywood. But innocent is a bit of a lazy term; what exactly does it mean? Nicholson said she laughed when Jessie said, “I’m not as helpless as I look,” as though Nicholson expects any sixteen year old girl to credibly assess her own level of helplessness. Jesse is in over heard, she has the “deer in the head-lights” look Ruby (Jena Malone) says the industry’s looking for. But that’s not what sets Jesse apart from all the other clueless, beautiful girls coming to LA.
Jesse explains to her first photographer and sort of boyfriend, Dean (Karl Glusman), how when she was a kid she imagined the moon was an eye, always looking down at her. Throughout the film, the moon takes on a divine quality and Jesse therefore seems like a priestess or chosen one. When Dean tells her he wants her to stop trying to be like the shallow crowd she’s fallen in with, she tells him he doesn’t understand: “I don’t want to be them. They want to be me.” The important distinction between Jesse and the others isn’t that she’s helpless and they’re predators, it’s that they’re desperately pursuing an identity they don’t have while Jesse already has it. Just because Jesse is helpless doesn’t mean she isn’t a predator.
That’s another false dichotomy critics of the film seem to assume exists. Though maybe it’s not surprising a Hollywood critic would assume that ruthlessness implies strength. The movie presents a very narrow world to reflect this dominant narrow philosophy of reflections. Jesse has a vision of triangles in darkness when she passes out at one point and then later sees these triangles at a fashion show.
These simple, harsh shapes. Throughout the movie, the only characters we meet who don’t work in the fashion industry at some level are two hotel managers, one of whom is played by Keanu Reeves whose menace I found to be surprisingly effective. In all the parties and photo shoots depicted in the film, we never see more than five people in a room except one audition scene where a dozen or so models sit motionless in a sterile room.
It’s like a desert island and the only thing left for people to eat is each other, a thematic subtext that becomes a bit more than that. Early on, Ruby remarks that a lipstick one of the models is applying is called “Red Rum”, observing that all lipsticks colours are named after food and sex. Not one person in the room mentions The Shining and it’s this very omission that makes it all the more striking. Ruby and the models are so tickled by the insight that lipstick is supposed to imply food and sex the fact that for most people Red Rum implies murder is like one of those fashionable unspokens everyone in the room knows but only acknowledges with the subtlest smirks.
Twitter Sonnet #885
Construed attacks atop o’smokey’s cheese
Chagrined a challenged Charger joint encased
In balanced lamp post pand’ring gallop peas
Arranged in rows of greenless dry soup paste.
It’s bold to chip the cucumber before
The vanguard kite can fall beneath the wind
That names the man from Bob or pinafore
Contained in rolling cloud, in airy bend.
Engaged by twirling rounds of taffy claws
Irradiated damage marks collect
Across the headboard post in lieu of saws
That cut in lines so like an architect.
The open tabs cannot obscure the stone
Enlarged by time forgot and lately grown.