The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon challenges us with a preposition – Beauty isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.
In the film, this line is referring to the modeling industry, which it depicts as not just vapid and meaningless, but a literal lion’s den of carnivorous, blood thirsty predators. There’s no joy of achievement or success. No thrill of creation or self improvement. The only commodity worth vying for is that of attention. The lustful gaze of the gate keepers is the only aspiration these models wish for.
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), The Neon Demon follows Jesse (Elle Fanning) a young beauty who’s attempting to make her mark in the Los Angeles modeling community. She’s run away from a quiet midwest life to follow her dreams in the glitz and glam of the City of Angels.
Jesse befriends Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), seasoned models who give her a glimpse into what her future could hold. Their livelihood and status depend on successfully being selected, set onto a pedestal, and captured forever by the all powerful camera. Unfortunately, fame and attention are fickle in this industry. The constant need to reinvent and maintain one’s outer appearance becomes one’s sole obsession.
For the models in this film, perfection of the form is the only thing worth considering. A rich inner life is an ignored afterthought – a mere consequence of beauty and desirability. There is no beauty or depth of one’s soul. For they have no depth. Their true self is expressed in the flat celluloid of the film that captures them. Their soul is only a shadow cast by the glorious limelight.
In many ways The Neon Demon’s stylistic depiction of the life of a model could also serve as a metaphor for Hollywood. Oh sure, there’s other more lofty and academic aspects of Film – there’s thoughtful criticism, video-essays, discussions, etc. You can get a degree and spend decades involved in the ongoing communication of cinema as an art form. However, the multi-billion dollar movie business of today is by and large all about one thing – convincing you, the consumer, to exchange your money for the chance to gaze at something enticing.
Is it wrong to aspire to be beautiful, purely for it’s own sake? We value the attention of others. That sort of appreciation drives the waking hours of many of us. If an artist’s only goal for his painting was that it was beautiful, would we fault him? It might be shallow, it might not have a single thing to say about the world – and for some this would be an absolute affront to the very meaning of art. To them, art without deeper meaning layered within it is pointless. Some people want their art to speak volumes. Others just want something pretty to look at.
Where your cinematic preferences fall on that spectrum is largely going to determine what you get out of the film.
Is The Neon Demon an example of style over substance? This isn’t the first film of writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn to elicit that criticism, and it’s easy to see why. Scenes are set beautifully, but the actors seldom bristle with any human energy or excitement. People accuse Wes Anderson’s characters as remaining stoic and flat, but compared to Refn’s characters, they might as well be the Looney Tunes.
Cliff Martinez’s score is fantastic. The artificial synths and rhythmic beats wash over you and the base drives forward relentlessly. They wonderfully accompany the beautiful cinematography of Natasha Braier. Together they help portray a soulless, dark, and seedy California in The Neon Demon. The city somehow feels both abandoned, yet crowded with ill-intentions.
The Neon Demon isn’t a movie one can easily recommend to just anyone. There’s long scenes of the film with little to no dialogue and excessive and extravagant visualizations of the act of modeling. Some might find this the epitome of a vapid and boring movie. Others will sit, transfixed, caught up in the blend of hypnotic music and beauty of its depictions of the act of modeling. The line between being overly self indulgent and true art is a fine one, and one that Mr. Refn insists on dancing upon with each new film he makes.
The worst thing a movie can be, is forgettable. The Neon Demon has only grown in my mind since seeing it. Nicolas Winding Refn has made a film that sets out with a very specific mood and tone in mind, and absolutely nails the delivery. Scenes from this have been burned into my cinematic memory banks.