Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Neon Demon

* spoilers *

The Neon Demon is a beautiful, surreal film from Nicolas Winding Refn. Every piece of set, clothing, makeup, and lighting is carefully designed and oftentimes surreal. The film is a feast for the eyes, finding beauty in the mundane as well as in the high fashion world of modelling. The real world scenes tend to move the plot forward and the eerily beautiful fashion scenes slow the film to showcase the gorgeous images. The fashion plateaux are sometimes completely still until we see the full scene and then the action starts up. The pace is deliberate and slow. The sparse dialogue and basic story allow the visuals to take precedence. Along with the visuals, the music also plays a significant role. The opening credits of the film feature neon colors and Cliff Martinez's synthetic 80's inspired score. It's very effective in setting the tone of the film.

Jesse, a fresh faced southern girl, comes to LA alone with big dreams. She immediately books job after job with photographers and designers, much to the chagrin of more experienced models. Her wide eyed, innocent look along with her striking beauty cause others to be attracted to her, jealous of her, or inspired by her. Elle Fanning portrays Jesse as vapid, without much personality, but it works since others project their own wants and emotions onto her. Her journey through the film is her transformation from innocent ingenue to self aware powerhouse. Early on, her power is symbolized by a cougar breaks into her room. She fears it at first, but that changes over the course of the film. At the beginning, she relies on agents, photographers, and designers to validate her talents and beauty until she's chosen to close the show of a famous designer. She realizes that their desire and envy of her looks can be used to her advantage. This transformation is symbolized with a lengthy scene of Jesse in the finale gown faced with a trio of blue upside down triangles. At first, she looks scared and meek, but then they turn red. Her entire demeanor changes. Her eyes take on a cunning light and she presents herself as more sexual. She realizes she has all the power in this situation and recognizes her capacity for greatness.

Unfortunately, Jesse never gets to take advantage of that power. At every turn, various men in positions of power have the opportunity to exploit or abuse her. These situations are teased over and over, but never come to fruition. The photographers and designers are inspired by her, but treat her decently. Keanu Reeves as the motel manager also seemed creepy and definitely had anger issues, but he just wanted to run his motel and say rude things to people. The real danger comes from the women around her. Ruby is the first person Jesse meets in LA and they become fast friends. However, when Ruby tries to force herself on Jesse and is soundly rejected, she joins forces with the other two models who hate Jesse: Gigi and Sarah. Both of them were rejected and humiliated by industry professionals while being compared to Jesse, which is even more insulting because they all look very similar: blonde, fair skin, and blue eyes. (Even in the marketing, I mistook the other actresses for Elle Fanning.) Although they were quick to blatantly show their animosity, I didn't recognize them as a true threat maybe because their behavior is expected or my own unconscious sexism. This shows how the young women in the fashion industry aren't only under threat of those in power, but those that could benefit from their fall and those who can't stand becoming obsolete over newcomers.

The last part of the film is where the true horror is. One particular scene had people walking out, which is graphic and disturbing. While I thought it was largely unnecessary, we see how lonely Ruby is and how unhinged she is at that point. Right when Jesse is at the apex of her journey, the other girls attack her and consume her, showing physically the much less violent actions of those trying to stay relevant in looks based industries. I'm disappointed this was done offscreen. We see the aftermath as they are all washing off the blood. With Ruby, it comes off as an Elizabeth Bathory bath, but with Gigi and Sarah, it seems more like a bad softcore porn scene with blood added. The next day, Gigi and Sarah go to a photoshoot where they are treated just like Jesse. This is a hint of supernatural as they absorbed Jesse's magnetism and power by consuming her. Sarah thrives and revels in the attention while Gigi can't handle it. Gigi's meltdown scene is darkly humorous and disgusting, but shows how not all can stomach the cutthroat nature of the fashion industry. Ruby, on the other hand, cleans up the mess, digs a grave, and then menstruates everywhere? This baffling scene could mean anything. My inner reading says she does this to women periodically over the years in order to stay young and beautiful since she had the Elizabeth Bathory imagery earlier in the film. It also meshes with the overall theme of the fashion industry as a machine that uses and abuses women, pitting them against each other for supremacy.

The Neon Demon is a visually gorgeous film that moves slowly and methodically. It has shades of Black Swan, Suspiria, and Starry Eyes but stays wholly unique. Refn's singular style sets it apart and all of the performances are dedicated no matter how crazy or subdued the actions are. It's not a perfect film as some aspects are slightly disappointing. However, The Neon Demon is one of the most unique films in theaters. It pushes boundaries and frankly won't sit well with mainstream audiences with its slow pace and extreme ending. I recommend seeing it in theaters, especially if you want to see more out of the box horror in the future.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

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