|Still Frame from The Neon Demon IMDB page|
The scene is set: a young girl, all dolled up lays glassy-eyed and covered in fake blood. The camera pulls out on her posed-but-broken looking body. We are at a photoshoot, where the model is creating a scene of beauty and allure, all while looking as if she is dead. This is a trend I never understood in fashion shoots, the "drop dead gorgeous" scheme as I like to call it. But I guess so long as a woman still looks good regardless of her current state of life, her body can still be used for enjoyment, right? Hmmm... And so I pushed through and watched The Neon Demon (2016), which ended up being one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time. Well alright, maybe "worst" isn't the right word, but it was definitely the most disappointing and irritating. Because here's the thing: there was potential and setup for some good commentary in this movie! All the ingredients were there, but it went in the direction of nothing more than a gratuitous and seemingly self-satisfied mess in my opinion. And since I keep having reminders of this movie come up, I decided to get my thoughts out about it.
The Neon Demon is a film written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Elle Fanning as Jesse, an aspiring young model who moves to Los Angeles to pursue her career, where she learns just how ruthless this world can be as she rises in the ranks to the scorn of others. The cast is rounded out with the likes of Jenna Malone as Ruby, a makeup artist with an obsession with Jesse, Abby Lee and Bella Heathcote as rival models who know the ropes of the industry, and Keanu Reeves as a seedy motel owner where Jesse is staying. Christina Hendricks also makes a brief appearance as a modelling agent that has interest in Jesse. Overall, it's a capable cast that turns out good performances with what material they are given, but the stand-out for me was Jenna Malone, who is incredibly talented and honestly deserves better than what she tends to get as an actress (more on that later). But for now I will throw out a warning about major spoilers for the film in the rest of my post.
Here's what I was liking about the movie before it started to disappoint: the basic premise had a lot of potential to explore a lot of topics about the nature of the fashion and modeling industry, women as objects, beauty as a commodity, etc. And it does touch on some of these subjects. Notable scenes include those where people have an inkling that Jesse is lying about her age (she is only 16 and shouldn't be able to work without parental consent) but choose to look the other way and still utilize her in sexualized ways, highlighting our obsession with youth and indeed sexualizing girls at younger and younger ages. There is also a scene where Christina Hendrick's character takes one look at a girl in her office and sends her away after making such a snap judgement on her worth based on how she looks, which is a subject that far too many women are aware of: being thought worthless if they are not beautiful in a particular way. There is a scene where a photographer chooses to have a closed set with Jesse posing naked for just him as one of her first jobs, in order for her to work with such an acclaimed photographer, reminding me of all those coming forward now with allegations of sexual assault that thought they had to put themselves in these uncomfortable situations where they are taken advantage of in order to further their careers. There is even a scene where the models at a casting call walk around in their underwear, and they are solely judged on how they look as objects in the eyes of the one man in the room, and are completely disposable. Now, this last one is framed in such a way that I feel the message is getting across: we see the vulnerability of Abby Lee's character, Sarah, as she begins so confident having worked with this designer before, only to be torn down when that which she has to offer is not even looked at and passed on for something new. There is a lot of focus on the face of the designer choosing the models, so it doesn't seem like the intent of this scene is just to leer at young skinny girls parading around in their underwear. I am always highly suspicious of these decisions in movies, and this one could have easily fallen into nothing more than some lingering male gazes (it almost does) but having such a focus on the actual gazing itself happening leads me to see that there was indeed an intention and discussion starting to be made here.
But as soon as these topics started coming up and I became more intrigued, the rug got pulled out from under me in favour of focusing on a hammy and unsubtle "message" for the film. Because what is this film really trying to say? That it's a girl-eat-girl world in the fashion industry. How do I know? Well, because a couple of jealous models literally eat Jesse, that's how. Oh, and because the synopsis on imdb.com states: "When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has" (emphasis mine). With so many avenues and even scenes within the movie itself set up to say so much more about society, beauty, and gender, that's the overall message you go with? That women will devour each other in order to be successful, while hardly touching on how our competitiveness as females is derived from our larger society and how we are deemed as worthy within it? The film doesn't even present it's message in a clever way, it's an annoying and ham-fisted metaphor through and through, despite an air about it that seems to think that it's being very clever about what it's saying.
Speaking of ham-fisted: the dialogue. The dialogue is sparse, but that which is present is a bit over-the-top. There's a whole scene where the models discuss how lipstick colours are either named after food or sex, and that this also relates to life, asking Jesse if she herself is more food or more sex. It's so corny, and yet could have been such a great segue into the topic of consumption of women like products to buy. Yet instead, it literally just translates from the very beginning into her being yearned after for sex by men and Ruby, but ultimately being literal food for the other models. There is also some hammy monologue that Jesse goes on at the end, seemingly out of nowhere about how her mom always said she was a "dangerous girl" because she knows how she looks and how people look at her. This character shift almost seems to come out of nowhere as if the writers really just wanted to throw this dialogue in and show what a femme-fatal she is, even though it amounts to nothing and doesn't really align with how her character has acted so far: if you want to show how this industry and living here has changed her, there needs to be some development, not just out-of-the-blue right at the end when it doesn't even matter anymore.
Also in terms of the dialogue, Nicolas Winding Refn does have a certain stylistic way about him, that some audiences love while others hate. I know that Drive (2011) was pretty divisive between critics and general audiences, though I personally thought it was pretty interesting. One thing about this movie, though, was the way in which there were long spaces in the dialogue and prompted by the direction that felt a little awkward, but it really suited the relationships in the film. The same thing happens in The Neon Demon, but here it feels super unnatural. Someone will ask a question and it will go unanswered in an awkward space of time for far too long; it was excruciating and no real human being speaks like that, making it feel so weirdly put-on. And not only was the dialogue drawn out, but other sequences as well. These include scenes such as Jesse being painted by a photographer or walking down the runway in strobing lights. Such scenes were all clearly there for visual gratification, and they were indeed quite neat looking, but ultimately went on far longer than needed to appreciate this artistry.
It honestly felt like there wasn't enough in the plot that all these things had to be dragged on for more time than necessary, otherwise there wouldn't be a full run-time for the movie: dramatic pauses between sentences took up a good half hour or more of the time, I swear (not that I was timing them). And not only that, but there were scenes that felt completely unnecessary, as if they were added in an attempt to make the plot and overall situation more complex, but ultimately got forgotten about or didn't really matter in the end. This is most notably seen in any interactions with Keanu Reeve's character, Hank, who runs the motel Jesse is living in as she begins her life in Los Angeles. There is an incident with a cougar getting in the building, which I'm sure is a metaphor for something but I didn't get it. Jesse also has a dream about Hank putting a knife down her throat during the night, but again I don't know what this was supposed to mean given how everything plays out. Finally, Jesse leaves the motel to stay with Ruby one night after hearing what sounds like Hank killing a guest next door, but I really don't know what the purpose of this was despite showing some fear of violence in Jesse, which is a theme all too common in many movies, just watching the young girl hide and whimper. But there were many other reasons that could have been used to have Jesse staying with Ruby, so that whole bit felt very forced and purposeless, again given how everything played out in the end. Which is a shame because I love Keanu Reeves and he could have been given more to work with here, or his character could have had a bigger thematic purpose. But alas, twas not the case.
Finally,-- and this is the big one-- the reason I think this movie bothered me so much was the gratuitousness and seeming self-satisfaction of it all. There was so much going on that felt really unnecessary, but that the creators specifically wanted to include just to be able to see it play out: a feeling of "look how artistic and clever I am with this gruesomeness" which ultimately isn't that clever nor does the payoff seem worth it in the end. I feel this a lot especially when it comes to nudity of women (young women, in particular) and ask if it's really purposeful to have these bodies exposed or is it just for the kicks and leering of the male creators/audience? The "reasons" for these things to happen often seem so cheap and like throwaway lines too, so as I said before, I am always suspicious of things like this getting added to movies. And even here, I mentioned how the casting call for models seemed more focused on viewing the male-gaze itself rather than the women, but those actresses and models were still subject to walk around almost naked on set and filmed as such all day. It's not that I outright disagree with nudity in film, but I do question the choices at times and the true intent behind them.
I am thinking about these things in particular right now, as just two days ago I read Salma Hayek's account of her dealings with Harvey Weinstein, which highlight the trials of coming to make the movie Frida (2002). Hayek claims that the movie about the iconic Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, was almost shut down as Weinstein didn't think her unibrow was sexy (despite being pretty iconic to the historic figure) and pushed to have the inclusion of a sex scene that was not originally in the script: leading up to this, Hayek recounts incidents where Weinstein attempted to get her into the shower for him to watch, so now, this insisting that this sex scene occur with her nude in order to get this movie made --that she had worked on for years-- really seems like just another plot to get her naked no matter what, despite her established refusals to do so in private. It makes you wonder about a lot of other movies too, and what the actors/actresses were forced to do or show in them. I think this series of tweets from user Alan Scherstuhl sums up my feelings on this subject nicely:
Now, this isn't per say jus about nudity, but including things and making actors/actresses perform them when not exactly necessary, or making these bits go on for far too long-- think: the almost 10-minute sex scene in Blue is the Warmest Color (2013). There are things that seem really gratuitous in a lot of films and movies nowadays that just feel like the creator wanted to see them play out in front of them like some weird fantasy, all while pretending that there is some nonexistent "message" or "reason" behind the whole thing. And this brings me to Jenna Malone in The Neon Demon:
Jenna Malone is a very capable actress who I see show up in projects from time to time, but given her skill, I honestly want so much more for her. She's great in everything she is in, even if the role ends up being small (think of her minor supporting role in The Hunger Games trilogy). But here, while the role of Ruby could have been very interesting, the way the story and direction went made me feel uncomfortable for her and what she was required to do for this part that ultimately boiled down to a "predatory lesbian" trope. For example near the end of the movie there is a scene where she is outside washing blood off the sidewalk and watering plants, etc, and she is wandering around shirtless. Why? It's the nudity thing again, there hadn't been anything too much up until this point so you had to include some breast somewhere, right?
But the most awful part of this movie for me was one scene in particular that involved her working on the makeup of a corpse for a funeral: while doing this job, Ruby starts thinking of Jesse, climbs on top of the corpse, spits in its mouth, kisses it, and masterbates on top of it. Imagine writing that and wanting an actress to act this part out. Imagine wanting to see that being acted out in front of you time and time again, and then later on film. Yeah, I get that it's supposed to make audiences uncomfortable (Or is it? What kind of necrophilia fantasy such as the one mentioned at the beginning in regards to death-fashion shoots does this play into?) Of course, actors/actresses don't need to take roles if they are uncomfortable with what's involved --props to Jenna Malone for being a trooper and going through that all gung-ho--, but we all know that most movies that are taken seriously nowadays involve some kind of sexual content on the part of women, most notably when written by a man. And there are also agents urging people to take part in films, and if one actress doesn't feel comfortable with the part, eventually you will get to one who will do it just for the exposure or experience of working with this person or because they are told they should. Eventually, someone takes part and acts out these bizarre scenes. And hey, if they are comfortable with it, all the power to them, but I'm just suspicious of these things being written in order to be acted out in the first place. It also has to do with the framing, I mean the whole thing is quite on display and in your face in this movie, there could have been a way to do it that didn't seem so... I don't want to say graphic, but maybe more subtle?
In any case, I started The Neon Demon feeling curious, only to become uncomfortable and angry at how things played out. It felt like this movie thought itself oh-so-imaginative and clever, while ultimately being nothing more than a mess of violence, clunky dialogue, and eye-roll inducing symbolism with an absolutely unoriginal takeaway. It could have been so much more, and the visuals and potential of the premise are quite intriguing, I will give it that. But unfortunately a focus on aesthetic and desire to include specific extended moments led to the actual story being treated in what I feel to be a lazy fashion.
Does any of this matter though? I'm just one person on here, and I don't plan on watching this movie again. And I do know that I have a tendency to overthink things. But like I said, I keep being prompted to think about this film for some reason, and that leads me to think about other implications that this movie has in relation to our views of women and the film industry in general, which has recently had more of a microscope being put up to it (though not completely). Have you seen The Neon Demon? Do you feel differently about it than I do?