Jesse (Elle Fanning) is only 16 years old, but she already possesses an unnatural beauty that makes her stand out from everybody else. Even when her throat has been cut with fake blood drenching her and the couch she’s lounging on, Jesse’s beauty shines through the gallows horror of a fetishized fashion corpse murdered for a photo shoot. As soon as she has posed that image, she’s become a participant in the male-dominated world of objectifying women’s bodies through fashion and makeup. As much as she tries to clean the blood off her body, her skin remains stained by association.
So opens Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, a judgmental take on Hollywood, female objectification, and The Male Gaze. Jesse just stepped off the bus in L.A., is still staying in a shitty motel, and has yet to get an agent when she’s being desecrated as a beautiful corpse by Dean (Karl Glusman, who previously appeared erect in Gaspar Noe’s Love), a Mr. Nice Guy photographer who only has her best interest at heart. As she’s cleaning up the blood from her body, she’s being eye fucked by Ruby (Jena Malone), a cold-hearted makeup artist who has seen what the industry can do to a person. Of course, Ruby only has Jesse’s best interest at heart.
Actually, almost everybody with a little bit of authority or power in The Neon Demon only has Jesse’s best interest at heart. Her agent tells Jesse to say she’s 19 because 18 is too on the nose. Jesse’s first real photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington), demands a closed set so he can pull her onto an all white background, strip her naked and slather her in gold paint, but later promises her that he’ll put them in a magazine fashion spread. Her first fashion designer, Mikey (Charles Baker), makes no pretense that he thinks she’s the hottest thing on two legs and that she’ll be closing his new show, thus ensuring that her career is going to skyrocket. Of course everybody wants to get something out of the deal, from a goodnight fuck to a credit on a placed photo; but we all know it’s all about Jesse’s best interests…right?
The only three who are openly against Jesse are the motel manager (Keanu Reeves) and Ruby’s two just-about-to-go-over-the-hill model friends, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, both of whom were 29 during filming). For his part, the motel manager is honest about using and abusing anybody he can get his hands on, including the child from Sandusky that he’s whoring out in the room next door. He just wants his money. Gigi and Sarah, though, see Jesse as fresh-faced competition who hasn’t fucked her baby fat off yet. They tell her of all the work they’ve had done (they’re on a first name basis with their plastic surgeon), gossip about friends who are turning 21 and becoming old hat, and try to decimate her through their “perfection” that they’re really insecure about losing.
But, poor naive Jesse already knows she’s fuckable jailbait. She tells Carl that she knows she isn’t talented but she can sell her beauty. She’s already ready to sell her body and her soul to survive in the world. Her highest goal is to become an object to be adored and desired. In an industry that’s primed and ready to cash in on somebody’s willingness to be objectified, that’s dangerous.
In a way, Jesse’s story is the least interesting part of The Neon Demon. It’s so chock full of boredom and cliche – Jesse and Carl drive out to the cliff on Mulholland Drive and make out – that even Refn seems bored with the rote beginnings of the tale. Refn almost seems to say “yes yes, barefoot fresh off the bus beauty gets discovered; ho hum let’s move on.”
Instead, the more interesting people are the cynical, cold, and coarse models and Jena Malone’s vampiric mystery. These walking hollow shells of people have built walls upon walls to block any outward sense of their humanity and insecurity. Ruby, who moonlights (or daylights) as a Mortuary makeup artist, seems to be the queen in control of everybody around her; she’s the only one who attempts to feign any warmth towards Jesse. What happened to these women? Nobody is born this empty. No child would ask about the daily specials knowing that she only wants a fruit cup and a coffee.
There are only four male characters – Dean, Jack, Mikey, and the motel manager – each of whom either possesses power, the male gaze, or both. Each of them objectify women to suit their needs, and they’re the ones in control of the way we see the world. The women, including Jesse’s agent, are subject to men and the power of their objectification. But, what happens to a woman when she subjects herself to the objectification of the fashion industry? What happens to Jesse, Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah when they willingly objectify themselves in order to participate in an industry that in turn tells them to objectify themselves?
1990s Bret Easton Ellis would be proud of this movie, or he’d be jealous. The Neon Demon practically jumps from some non-existent chapter of The Informers. Languid to the point of callous, cool to the point of cold, gorgeous to the point of eye searing, Refn stages each frame like a fashion spread but fills it with such loathing that it’s impossible not to see its irony. Much like Ellis wrote contemptuously about how coolly callous the LA bad boy scene was, Refn puts an angry disgust into his frames. He shoots the models from head to foot on a 2.35:1 frame, but still manages to make them tower in their 10″ stilettos. The actors all feel like scuzzbuckets, including the lusty gay fashion designer. Each frame is an immaculately ironic message about the state of modeling and fashion.
Is Refn the best person to be making such commentary? His movies have frequently trafficked in objectified masculinity, where men make their way in the world through cold brutality, and his women have been rather single-faceted characters split between Madonna and Whore. Here, Jesse is the woman selling out her soul to go from Madonna to Whore, but is this just a male fantasy? Is this just a guy jerking off about a male-dominated industry objectifying women? Am I just a gay guy defending a straight guy making a movie about a male-dominated industry that objectifies women?
Or, is he trying to say something about women in the industry? Can he be trading in this gorgeous imagery while asking whether women can be complicit in their own objectification and what that does to their soul? Is that question similar to Ellis critiquing masculinity in American Psycho by using the most overblown misogynistic violent imagery to date?
Whatever the answers to these questions, all I know is this is exactly what I didn’t know I wanted. It’s what I expected, and didn’t get, from the film adaptation of The Informers. And, it’s exactly my type of movie: formal to a fault, drop dead gorgeous, full of ideas and questions, and entertaining as all get out.