Love or Hate: The Neon Demon

Last week, my friend, Aoife, invited me to see an early screening of the movie The Neon Demon. I was excited to see a sharp critique of the modeling industry and beauty culture from the director of Drive. But what started as an interesting commentary ended up being something entirely different…

Warning: there are a few spoilers in this post – if you’re planning on subjecting yourself to this film then don’t read any further! Just know you’ve been warned.

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If you’re still with me and haven’t seen the movie, The Neon Demon is an indie/avant garde film starring it-girl Elle Fanning about the competition and dark side of the modeling industry. The plot follows Fanning’s character Jessie as she breaks into modeling and becomes an overnight star, much to the chagrin of the other models. She lives in a motel (run by a mega creepy Keanu Reeves), has an older boyfriend, and makes friends with a kindly makeup artist who eventually takes her in. Seems like your run of the mill ‘small town girl gets taken advantage of in order to achieve fame’ sort of story, right? Just wait.

After a series of weird lighting sequences and ‘artsy’ shots of Elle Fanning, Jessie almost gets raped by Lolita obsessed Reeves. She manages to lock him out, but is then forced to listen to him rape the 13-year-old runaway who is staying next door. Super shocking and really affecting. Despite my distaste for the style, the film worked for me up until that point. I thought that was the major drama and turning point for the movie. Instead, that’s where things got straight up RIDICULOUS.

From there she stays with the kindly makeup artist she has befriended, who then also tries to rape her. Okay, we get it. Oh but wait, it’s not over until we then watch said friendly makeup artist masturbate with a dead body… But there’s more! Of course they have to then chase Jessie around friendly makeup artist’s LA mansion with a machete and kill her. Seems extreme, right? But not until they eat her and bathe in her blood! It’s cool though cause what more could happen? Certainly not someone throwing up one of Jessie’s eyeballs at a photo shoot and then stabbing herself in the torso. That would be CRAZY.

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I think you get the point. This movie flew right off the deep end – and I don’t mean the one they pushed Jessie into in order to harvest her blood. I know I’m not much of a film buff and, honestly, there was way too much going on for me to even deal with any sort of nuanced analysis of what was trying to be done, but I did have a few takeaways from the whole experience…

It’s dangerous to be a woman, especially a woman who gets noticed. It’s a privilege to look good and feel safe, both physically and emotionally, as we live in a world that conditions women to be competitive and men to be aggressive. And while certainly over the top, the film does prove this to be true. It plays with elements of trust and safety and the dynamics of power once trust is gained. That’s what I liked so much about the first act of film – do we trust Keanu Reeves? Is that older boyfriend sincere or manipulative? Are those girls her friends or jealous enemies? It all played on our expectations of trust, which was dramatically heightened as we followed the super young and naive Jessie.

But as chaos ensued in the rest of the film that all got so utterly lost in an attempt to be shocking. And by the end, I had no idea what the film was trying to say. That nobody wins in this beauty obsessed world? Should we all just be nice and trusting like Jessie and let ourselves be eaten? I couldn’t even begin to say. None of that is helped by the fact that the director, Nicolas Winding Rafn, has been publicly creepy to his basically-underaged star. You can’t make a movie about older men taking advantage of young women if you’re a 45 year old man kissing his 18 year old star on the red carpet… Just sayin’.

To sum it up: there was a talkback with the director after the film and almost everyone left before it started. I think he got his feedback.

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