In Nicolas Winding Refn’s baroque, quasi-horror film The Neon Demon, Refn sculpts a visual feast for the ages by integrating elemental symbols that aid in his visual storytelling—symbols of yearning for youth, of lusting for success in an industry where success is literally skin deep. These elemental symbols are significant because Refn has the habitual tendency to gaze. His decision to focus on one or two objects to fetishize—something he does in every one of his films—is again apparent in The Neon Demon. The script forces the actors to do away with explanations, aborting unnecessary and clunky expository dialogue in favor of the gaze, the stare, the look, so we can set our focus on the most prosaic, most universally culturally-agreed-upon components of storytelling—symbols and the meanings we attach to them.
The Neon Demon starts off in modern-day Los Angeles, where an aspiring, underage model by the name of Jesse (played effortlessly by the actress Elle Fanning) is new to town, landing amateur photo gigs with non-professional photographers in order to add material to her burgeoning portfolio. Jesse is immediately thrust upon the LA modeling world, where learning who is and isn’t your friend is not always obvious. We hear the clichés about, ahem, “fucking you way to the top”—that careers are built on who you screwed, who you blew, and this whole sexual whirlwind is exhausting—maybe—on our poor Jesse. God, not another story about corruption and drugs, I think to myself—that’s too easy of a trope.
But Jesse is no rube—she processes this decadent system of modeling by actively and constantly remaining inert to onlookers. Still, Jesse contemplates her next move in order to advance her career. She’s playing 4D chess with her adversaries and faux-friends by behaving naïve, but Jesse is insidiously manipulating them through backhanded compliments, playing mind-games to lower their shields, and using her extreme youth to undermine the more seasoned models, with their synthetic and store-bought looks. Yet what elevates this film beyond a turgid, hackneyed regressive-feminist psychodrama of women behaving badly with other women is this otherworldliness, an almost intangible curio of cinematic cues that suggest that certain symbols—in this case: mirrors, blood and the moon—are dormant, and only when we examine these signals further do we witness a more interesting film.
Take the mirrors in Jesse’s hotels and the various changing rooms, for example—they are breeding grounds for narcissism, and throughout the film, Jesse’s character evolves beyond being a deer-in-the-headlight simpleton admiring her thin physique in the mirror to bathing in her reflection and stroking her ego as stylists, make-up artists, and fashion directors doll her up in the latest, name-brand fashions. Refn spends a significant amount of time fixating his lens on breaking up the composition with multiple mirrors, compartmentalizing Jesse and creating this feedback loop of isolation and admiration (which is, of course, textbook narcissism). However, in a recent interview with Gawker, an interviewer asks the director whether too much self-love leads to narcissism, and whether the film perpetuates this sentiment. “Absolutely. Part of the film is a celebration of narcissism as a virtue. It’s a quality that’s no longer taboo,” Refn says. The director seems to take the contrarian view that narcissism is an asset, and the ungodly amount of time he rests his lens on physical mirrors—and the characters that mentally become adrift in them—are all symbols of acceptance and positive self-absorption.
A more stirring visual motif that The Neon Demon plays around with is the supernatural pull of the moon. “Do you see me?” Jesse yells at the moon, as she contemplates her significance among the stars and universe. Something like this, in any other film, would be endearing: a young teenager ready for the adventure and praying to the skies for celestial advice. But The Neon Demon is a horror movie, and like a full moon in a werewolf film, or how Kirsten Dunst’s character in Melancholia basks in moonlight to render her depression null, the moon in The Neon Demon possesses a supernatural gravitation. Here, it activates two different responses from the two primary female leads. Jesse’s relationship with the moon is unassuming, as previously mentioned, but it’s Jesse’s acquaintance and almost erotic interest Ruby, a make-up artist played by actress Jenna Malone, who sparks a different, more feral tone. Without spoiling the plot, Ruby lays down on the floor in front of a large window with a full moon facing her direction. What unfolds is a graphic scene where Ruby intentionally relieves herself on the floor after satisfying her infatuation. How she obtains her object of desire would give away the plot, but coveting the flesh of another is one component. Her decision to cull her bodily fluids in the presence of the moon is not too far fetched from this idea that the moon can be powerful enough to trap onlookers in a trance. Whether or not this symbolic, sacramental idea is successful, Ruby nonetheless works in tandem with the paranormal abilities of the moon, pursuing her lustful desires.
In terms of beauty and insecurity, The Neon Demon’s most explicit and most potent use of symbolism is in its use of blood. Blood is this non-rational symbol of energy and youth, both vital if you wish to succeed in the modeling world. Is this unfair?—of course it is, but the economic and capitalistic imperatives force young women, and some men, to adhere to a set of unrealistic standards. In The Neon Demon, we see how Jesse’s relative young age, compared to the rest of the models, sets off this maelstrom of envy—and the chaos that ensues is what drives the film to use blood, especially Jesse’s blood, as metaphorical manna. Blood, like a heavenly source of nourishment, is highly coveted—so much so that we see can see it at work when Jesse’s hand is cut with a mirror shard while she’s struggling to get away from another jealous model. The model is distraught that her modeling days are over, but the ensuing struggle reveals that the model has a thirst for blood.
These superstitions may sound irrational in our secular society, but the themes of blood, mirrors and introspection, and, lastly, celestial bodies are all symbols that point to our inherent narcissism and insecurities, and the means by which we try to obtain youth and relevance. Winding Refn uses these visual signs to lure us in, until we’re thinking about his films on another level. I’m just grateful that Refn has an art-school sensibility and a thorough grasp of film grammar, and of course, that his films are shown in wide distribution. You can enjoy the film on a narrative level, but to fully understand The Neon Demon, you have to let your eyes do the processing.