October 31, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsRemembrances

The Demon, Interrupted: On The Neon Demon


The Neon Demon isn’t the worst film ever made, but it is terrible because one can see promise squandered. By promise, however, I don’t mean the director, the super-slick Nicolas Winding Refn, whose male gaze is so overpowering it’s a parody of male omnipotence—check out how Refn monograms the opening title cards with his own initials, like he’s a luxury brand, some subversive, satanic atelier in which sometimes his models end up eating each other. The dialogue is, at best, laughable, what I imagine a pretentious, egotistically young twenty-something white cis-gender male completely unaware of the terms “privilege”  might concoct in his fantasies about Maniac Pixie Dream Girls Gone Bad. There is an early bathroom scene among the four principal female characters that, in all my various conversations with women in bathrooms, has never happened, not even remotely, as he has written them. Let me give you an example:

Gigi (applying lipstick): God, I love this color on me.
Ruby: Red rum.
Gigi: What?
Ruby: That’s what it’s called. They say women are more like to buy a lipstick if it’s named after food or sex. Just think about it. Black honey, plum passion, peachy keen.
Gigi: Pink pussy.

I have many girl friends in the fashion world, and I have dated a variety of women who all inhabit different rungs of the fashion world, and never once has any one uttered something like, “They say women are more like to buy a lipstick if it’s named after food or sex.” It’s not just a poorly written line. It brings absolutely nothing to the film, not to its tension, not to its storyline. It reveals nothing distinct about any of the characters. It is foreshadowing the rest of the film, as Glenn Kenny explained in his scathing but spot-in review, as:

…work [that] looks like that of a technically adept, emotionally stunted adolescent who’s not nearly as bright as he thinks he is, and who is desperate to elicit the concern of his parents. The Neon Demon is hot garbage that dares you to call it offensive. In addition, it’s offensive.

What’s most offensive is his idea of “The Fashion World” itself. While I agree that high fashion still has a diversity problem, Refn’s vision is not only not diverse, but so blonde-and-blue-eyed that when Keanu Reeves finally appears on the screen, his presence is nearly a breath of fresh air, until, of course, that character turns out to be predatory scum who targets teenage girls. One might argue that this is the point, that Refn offers a critique of  the exploitation nature of modeling and entertainment. And yet, as Amy Nicholson argues in her review,

I’d buy his outrage if he weren’t continuously stripping his actresses to their underwear. In one scene, a dozen women sit in identical beige bras to convince us that, er, casting calls are dehumanizing. The camera lingers to make sure we get it, and then stays a while longer just because. The Neon Demon wants to have its cheesecake and condemn it, too.

Other than being visually stunning as, say, a Dior J’adore perfume ad, there is one saving grace. Unfortunately it is not the lead, Elle Fanning. This is not entirely her fault; the role requires an actor to skillfully intensify both the isolation and the hunger that a sixteen-year-old ingénue faces, despite an insubstantial script and a quite sudden of change of character halfway through the film when Jesse does a complete 180 after a single fashion show (Refn’s explanation? We see her kissing two reflections of herself on either side. That’s it. That’s the Neon Demon. Right.) Then who should have played Jesse? If we are playing by Refn’s beauty standards, then it’s an actor already cast in the film: real-life runway model Abby Lee.

Actor Abby Lee in THE NEON DEMON

The supporting actor had my attention in the trailer when her Sarah asked Fanning’s Jesse: “What does it feel like…to a walk into a room, and it’s like in the middle of winter…you’re the sun.” Lee is captivating throughout the film, and would have brought much more dimension to a high school drop-out becoming ever-aware of her position as the new It Girl in town. As Nicholson notes, if we are to treat Neon Demon as camp and not a social critique, then Abby Lee

commits to everything: screaming, sobbing, snarling, attempted blood sucking. She…knows exactly how to dominate the camera even as her character, an aging beauty in her early 20s, falls to pieces. She steals the whole movie, even scenes that are supposed to belong to Fanning….Lee is so good she nearly convinces us she’s invisible, or at least self-defeatingly insecure. That she loses gigs to dear, sweet Fanning — a kid so passive I snorted when she boasted, “I’m not as helpless as I look!”—seems less a tribute to Fanning’s modeling skills, and more like just one more sign that the business ain’t fair.

Then there’s a scene right at the end—I won’t give too much away here in case you want to see the film—in which Lee gives a simple yet perfect curdle of her upper lip, a strange revelation and release of disgust, loathing, and the ultimate departure from humanity. As her eyes are hidden behind large sunglasses, that she can convey such horrors is quite a feat in a matter of seconds. I say that when Lee’s eyes are so expressive— they reveal the last of her own fears and insecurities in a world in which her Sarah struggles to remain relevant. Abby Lee is a powerful actress, and that Refn intentionally made her identical to Bella Heathcote’s Gigi, as if to say the two were interchangeable and therefore whichever one “wins” doesn’t matter, is yet another offense he’s committed. The Neon Demon could have been so much more, dare I say it, in the hands of a woman film director. The demons that do haunt women are numerous as they are complex, conflicting, contradictory. Sarah’s moment of tenderness mixed with rage and blood-sucking after she loses a casting call to Jesse is successful because of what Abby Lee brings to the camera, not because of what words she’s given. How much more this film could have been with dialogue as nuanced as Lee’s pain and wrath. At the very least, the earlier bathroom banter wouldn’t rely on such cheap thrills for whatever male imagination is too lazy to think beyond its own puerile desires.