The Neon Demon (2016)

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d. Nicolas Winding-Refn / w. Winding-Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham

The Neon Demon is not a film I’d recommend to a lot of people. Not because it’s trash or vapid, as some critics feel, but because its basic story, spare dialogue, and stylized visuals will appeal only to a certain subset of filmgoers rather than to the masses.

On the surface and in promotion and reviews, it’s a horror film, though it does not follow such a structure and its pace is languid at best. It’s true that the first movie that came to mind as I watched was Dario Argento’s Suspiria. In look and story–a young, beautiful naif enters a world that will consume her–the comparison works. But as I thought more about the film in the days after seeing it–and I thought about it a lot, read a bunch of reviews, both positive and negative–it occurred to me that, really, it’s closest to science fiction. The opening shot (partially shown on the poster image above), with a blood-smeared and beautiful dead young woman, flashes of light and a slowly revealed camera and photographer affirming that she’s a model, not a corpse, now call to my mind the opening of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, with Alex and his droogs lounging at the Korova Milk Bar, with the figures of women as furniture. However, while the male violence in Clockwork is random and done for fun, in The Neon Demon, it’s mostly committed by women and for a purpose.

The neon palette and electronic score, the weird scarcity of people, the otherworldly beauty of the models–these elements combine to make the movie feel like it’s set on another planet. Like all SF, its imagined world reflects ours, its fears and desires. I’ve seen more than a few reviewers complaining that the film is saying “nothing new” about women and the culture of beauty, but that’s besides the point. How is it being said, and is it truly saying only one thing?

I’m reminded of Black Swan, my favorite film of 2010, and a discussion I had about it where someone tried to tell me the meaning of the movie was too simple and obvious. Except every review I’d read, everyone I’d talked to about the film, had a different interpretation. On the surface, in a film about surface, The Neon Demon is addressing the standard, dangerous notion that, as the male designer says, “Beauty isn’t the most important thing. It’s the only thing.” The women in the film kill (and do worse) for that beauty, to catch hold of and use that fleeting power.

But what most struck me is that the demon isn’t beauty itself; it’s a woman’s grasp or ownership of her beauty. There’s a pivotal sequence in the film where the protagonist, Jesse, closes a runway show; it’s the moment when she becomes the demon, admiring and kissing images of herself. After that, Jesse voices what she and everyone else is thinking: that she’s beautiful and people want to be her. It’s the thing women are not supposed to say. When she says it, her fate is sealed.

I won’t spoil the disturbing, extreme scenes that soon follow except to say that the violence itself is not graphic; its aftermath is. I’ll also say that the “aberrant” sexuality that partially earned the film an “R” is not homosexuality–though there is that, too–nor is there graphic sex or rape. The horror is shocking but surprisingly non-exploitative.

So, if you liked Drive, if style is enough substance for you, if you’re a fan of the grotesque, The Neon Demon is waiting.

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The Neon Demon (2016)

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