Content warning for descriptions of sexual assault, mutilation and murder. Also, spoilers.
I would say that it is best to watch the movie before you read this, but the movie is QUITE an intense thing to sit through, so if you have the stomach for it, again, please note that the movie has depictions of sexual assault, mutilation, murder and nudity.
After you watch the movie, feel free to read this and see if you agree with this write-up or think that I am just pulling stuff out of my ass.
There’s a question that gets asked to many young people which goes like this, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” This is meant to awaken the person’s imagination, have them envision themselves as a great individual filling a need (or want) of civilization…and that brings us to the sad truth, that no matter what the answer, people will consume or dispose of you based on how well you do that job, and on that alone. That is the tragic, gruesome truth at the heart of the Nicolas Winding Refn-directed, “The Neon Demon”, which starts out stylish, atmospheric and gratuitous but soon morphs into an ugly refutation of desire, dreams and individuality. This is a movie that seems to bring the goods that one expects from the surface (sex, powerful visuals and violence) but here the moviemakers seem to get off on withholding and then making you pay for desiring what this movie promised in the first place, using such content as bait for what could very well be the anti-“Karate Kid” of my movie-going generation. There’s no montages where the protagonist overcomes the pettiness of their peers or the harshness of their environment. Every person of every gender in this line of work (modelling) is predatory, and at the end of the day all one will get from it is a fleeting moment of glory before you are consumed and tossed aside…literally.
The plot is simple: a young woman (played by Elle Fanning) goes out to Los Angeles, sans parents, already creating quite a stir for her, “natural” beauty in comparison to the other models around her. There is an opening sequence that encapsulates this entire movie: a shot of her lying down with her throat cut, a male photographer leering at her as they snap several shots, the camera leaning back to emphasize that the whole thing is just a photo shoot. And yes, the entire movie is like that: well-blocked/composed shots by cinematographer Natasha Braier, pulsating with a score by Cliff Martinez and all composed in a fashion that one part David Lynch (pay close attention to how the opening credits are fashioned), one part aesthetic fetishization and another part…well, that, but with a bunch of parts of Los Angeles, some familiar, others twisted into something alien. Except here it comes with a brutal punch, with character development portrayed in ways that are so abstract one moment, so on-the-nose the next, sometimes so subtle, that it can be easy to miss the wider point.
There is a critical sequence where the young woman goes on her first modeling show. The movie shows her preparing for shoot, and even quipping with a jealous, snippy model (in this particular sequence, the model is played by Abbey Lee and holy SHIT, does she play the mean girl here well). Then the movie takes a abstract and surrealist turn, utilizing symbolism from earlier in the movie to showcase her transformation from a shy, timid young girl to someone who is more confident and assertive. A lot of blue, then a lot of red, with her showing loving herself (displayed here with her kissing her own reflection), and she emerges from this event, inverting herself into a confident and more mature woman eager to let the world know who she really is.
Only for a moment.
Afterwards, it’s all downhill from there, with the brutality of the business, and of L.A., beginning to make jabs at her. Her colleagues reveal themselves to be toxic and predatory, and she is left alone with her natural beauty as, paraphrasing her words, other people nip, tuck and starve themselves to be, “Second-rate versions of me”. This climaxes with decay and her being torn apart in a fit of temporary reprieve for the colleagues who hate her for being her. Here is where the movie begins to bring the goods, but in toxic and ugly ways. Gory mutiliation? Check! Sexual assault? Here you go, not just attempted and statuatory, but from men AND women, so as to shatter the illusion that she has any friends in this world (watch out for Jenna Malone’s character in this, along with Keanu Reeves in a great, then terrifying, bit part as an asshole hotel manager). Snippy comments about her dead parents from the other models who will soon be, “over the hill” according to an industry that tosses out talent like toilet paper? That is served throughout, and the movie is NOT subtle about it.
Not that one should be expecting, say, a Susan Faludi-level desecration on the exploitation of women in entertainment from this movie: for all of his skill and talent, Nicolas Winding Refn never quite overcomes the classic, “Male Gaze” problem when making a movie full of ladies. Also, while the movie is quite shocking, Refn and company compose their shots in such a way that the result is distracingly beautiful, to the point where it can be hard to tell if the moviemakers are either being sincere or are flipping you off. Such is the folly of the movies: either one tells the whole ugly truth but make the entire affair nigh-unwatchable (Lars Von Trier’s, “Antichrist”, though that movie has…eccentric traits that it uses to a harrowing end), or one make the movie appealing despite the subject matter but end up compromising the truth, and, “The Neon Demon” wavers between those extremes in such an erratic fashion that the transition becomes jarring in and of itself.
Even so…yeah, here is a fucked-up, beautiful, well-made movie that will test the patience (and gag-reflex) of many people and for good reason. As for myself? I admit it, I stayed during the end credits for this one, transfixed and repulsed throughout the whole experience even as the audience I sat with did not seem to be that into it (though there is one ending sequence that generated quite a response). Here is a movie that demonstrates the folly of growing up in a world where people only want to use you, and that no matter how bright you burn, you may just be snuffed out by those around you.
Fuck, that’s saddening. Who’s up for some Sia?
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