An Analysis of The Neon Demon (2016)
By: Eric Mulder
***WARNING: Spoilers Ahead***
The thing I enjoy most about Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent work is the way he takes a very simple story and tells it in a very stylish and complex way. The simple stories he tells are often classic fables or myths. For example, in Drive (2011), Refn used The Driver and a Mobster to tell the classic fable of The Scorpion and the Toad (read more about this in my analysis of Drive entitled “A Real Hero”). In The Neon Demon, Refn uses Elle Fanning’s character Jesse, and Los Angeles in general as a retelling of Narcissus from the Greek Myth. In Greek Mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who was known for his beauty. However he had a unique sense of pride/modesty in which he held nothing but contempt for those who loved him. The Greek goddess Nemesis saw this and led Narcissus to pool where he saw his reflection in the water and fell in love with it. Not realizing it was just an image and unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will will to live and stared at his reflection until he died. Narcissus is the origin of the term Narcissism. Wikipedia.org describes Narcissism as “a fixation with oneself and one's physical appearance and/or public perception,” and defines it further as “the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one's own attributes.” Narcissism is at the central core of this film, but as I said, it’s told in a very stylish and complex way. Refn’s use of color and the way he moves/frames the camera reminds me of Stanley Kubrick. His way of storytelling sometimes delves into the surreal, similar to a David Lynch film. Put it all together and you get a film about Narcissism that is both visually stunning, and completely fucked up. That’s Hollywood for ya. Refn then co-opts another tale to help tell his modern-day take on Narcissus. It’s a tale as old as Hollywood itself. The tale of the young, small-town girl who heads to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a star. In fact, a similar story is told in a similar way in David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive (Here I’m using the term “similar” loosely as nothing really exists that’s similar to anything David Lynch does).
Refn's Use of Color
When you watch The Neon Demon, which I’ll refer to now as just “TND”, the first thing you’ll notice is the color. A sparkling mix of reds and blues usher in the beginning of the film accompanied by the outstanding score and soundtrack provided by Cliff Martinez (as he is one to do). Suddenly the camera cuts to a close up of Jesse’s eye/face. As the camera pulls back we see she is covered in blood and the audience is left wondering if this young girl is dead. We then find out she is a model doing a photo shoot. This film is full of color, but red and blue are the most prominent. One reason being Nicholas Winding Refn is in fact color blind and can only perceive contrast and primary colors (Crazy to think about that the guy behind visually stunning works such as Drive and Only God Forgives (2013) is actually color blind). The other being that they used Red and Blue to help tell the story as both colors represented something specific. In an interview with The Guardian, Refn’s cinematographer on TND, Natasha Braier, had this to say regarding color: “The Blue had a lot to do with the Greek myth Narcissus, and to reflect Elle Fanning’s climatic narcissistic moment, so we did an abstract representation of going to the pond and looking at her reflection in the triangle. That’s when she’s going to transform into red and go from the Alice In Wonderland girl to the empowered beauty queen. …..Red meant danger and was in every scene with Jena Malone’s Ruby. We planned this well in advance.” Obviously, Refn’s use of color is very purposeful so let us break down the contrasting color aspect of the film a little more in depth.
After the red and blue sparkling intro, when pulling back from a close-up of Jesse’s eye, we see her covered in what appears to be blood. It’s obvious that red blood signifies danger, but it is also foreshadowing her death at the hands of who she meets next. When Jesse is finished with her shoot, she is next seen in the make-up room taking her make up off. This is where we meet Jena Malone’s character, Ruby. So her name is Ruby (yeah, as in Ruby Red), she has red hair, red lipstick, and is wearing a red tie. If Art, both literary and in media, has shown us anything, it’s that protagonists should probably avoid women wearing red. So if someone watching TND focuses on perceived foreshadowing, one could conclude that Jesse will be murdered, and that she will meet her demise at the hands of the Femme Fatale/Ruby, all within the first 5 minutes of the film. Shortly thereafter, Ruby takes Jesse to a party (at a place that is primarily filled with red lighting) and introduces her to Gigi and Sara. They discuss what their lipstick would be named. What answer does Ruby give? “Red Rum,” another infamous reference to murder (also popularized by Stanley Kubrick). Femme Fatales in Art are mainly distinguished by the color red, and in TND, Ruby is the reddest red that ever redded. Aside from all the red Ruby is wearing in the make-up room, she is wearing at least something red every time you see her.
Femme Fatale is French for “Fatal Woman.” Defined further, a Femme Fatale “tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure. In some situations, she uses lies or coercion rather than charm.” A more recent example of this femme fatale character is in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Basterds. In that film, Frederick Zoller first meets Shoshanna outside of her theatre while she is changing the marquee. She just so happens to be wearing a red jacket. Shoshanna uses some of the aforementioned feminine wiles against Zoller and ends up shooting him dead, wearing a red dress no less. Now does that mean any time you see a woman wearing red in any type of movie it foreshadows a protagonist’s demise? No, of course not, but in a serious film made by any director worth their salt, more often than not the use of color is purposeful and can be attached to foreshadowing. Over the past 100 years or so, Femme Fatales have, in certain instances, also been related to Vamps, short for Vampires. The dictionary defines Vamps as a “Seductive woman who uses her sensuality to exploit men. What else are Vampires known for? Sucking blood, and TND has that too! We first see it when Jesse cuts her hand in the bathroom and Sara grabs her hand and starts sucking her blood. Later on, Ruby, Gigi, and Sara all share in eating Jesse, drinking Jesse, and bathing in her blood. The earliest descriptions, and even contemporary descriptions of the Femme Fatale also allude to supernatural powers. While Vampires have them, so do other incarnations of a Femme Fatale, namely an Enchantress, a Demon, or a Witch. Another film that most likely influenced TND is Dario Argento’s Horror classic, Suspiria from 1977. Suspiria is about a young woman, wet behind the ears, who joins a prestigious ballet academy. After a series of grisly murders, she finds out that the school is run by a coven of witches. Notice any similarities? While Ruby, Sara, and Gigi have obvious vampiric/cannibalistic qualities, the way they go about devouring Jesse, bathing in her blood, etc., comes off as very ritualistic…..and therefore?……A WITCH!!!
I believe Refn’s use of color is most effective in the scene involving the fashion show Jesse has been chosen to close. Everything shown (aside from the blackness) is lit in Blue at first. Jesse passes through the Blue triangle looking unsure and frightened. She then sees her reflection in the triangle and proceeds to kiss her reflection. Then everything turns red and her expression changes from fear, to outright confidence. This shows that her transformation is complete. She has gone from a shy and naive young girl, to an empowered beauty queen that is the envy of everyone. From that point on, she is a completely different person.
We next see her step through a curtain into some sort of a restaurant/bar where the pompous designer/creator of the show is eating/drinking with Gigi and another model. She is dressed much differently then she has been up until this point in the film. She went from dressing like a modest and innocent 16 year old girl, to a more provocative and older look. She’s also wearing make-up which she was not wearing before (outside of the photo shoots). When they leave, she promptly blows off her boyfriend, lays down on her bed and appears to be admiring herself. Later, just before she is killed, Jesse is standing on the diving board talking to Ruby about herself. She says her mother used to call her dangerous, and that “I AM dangerous.” She goes on to say: “Women starve, carve, stuff, and inject themselves to look like a second-rate version of me.” These statements are completely at odds with Jesse’s character Pre-fashion show and further confirmation of her transformation and duality. Jesse’s story is also very similar to Natalie Portman’s character Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan.
Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall
Mirrors are featured heavily in TND. When your telling the story of Narcissus, you kinda need a lot of reflection, but mirrors are also probably the easiest way to symbolize Duality. Models have to prepare in front of mirrors constantly so their prominence is obvious, but with the help of Refn’s expert framing, he uses mirrors to help further tell his story. Like Narcissus, Jesse sees her reflection, albeit in a triangular mirror, and is transformed. Jesse meets Ruby in the beginning by looking in the mirror. Before the fashion show, Jesse has a conversation with Gigi in front of mirrors, and Refn frames the shot so you can see both sides of their faces. After Jesse rebukes Ruby’s sexual advances (while Ruby was wearing a red dress), Ruby uses reddish lipstick to draw a face on a mirror with the eyes crossed out, letting us know she intends on killing Jesse. Jesse cuts her hand on a mirror, and Sara tries to suck her blood. All the prominent women in this film have changed in a way or show a sense of duality even if he doesn’t spell it out for you. Jesse’s transformation is the most obvious and centerpiece of the film. Ruby goes from BFFs with Jesse to killing her. Gigi, through multiple plastic surgeries has completely changed her look from what it once was. It appears Sara has gone from being the all-natural and in-demand talent to something of an afterthought, which fills her with a jealous rage. Earlier in the film, Sara says “Why drink sour milk when you can have fresh meat.” Los Angeles itself has been called “two-faced,” shaking your hand with one arm, and stabbing your back with the other. Even Jesse’s Motel room number is a reflection of itself (212).
Triangles also play a role in TND. Jesse sees them in her dream and at the fashion show. The most prominent being the large blue or red triangle, as well as the three upside down blue/red triangles. Triangles have many meanings and interpretations. In keeping with the notion that Ruby, Gigi, and Sara are a coven of witches, I think the Occult interpretations are telling. Additionally, After Jesse is murdered, we see Ruby washing out the pool with no top on. She has various occult symbols tattooed all over her torso. Researching some basic Occult symbolism, I discovered that the triangle is often used as a “summoning symbol.” Furthermore, at the culmination of a ritual (fashion show), the object of desire (Jesse) is to appear inside of a triangle. Triangles pointing up or down can also symbolize a variety of different things. Triangles pointing up can signify male (as it is slightly phallic), a strong foundation (because of the flat base), or an ascension into the the spiritual world or a higher spirituality. Triangles pointing down can signify female due to it’s Yonic nature. What the hell is Yonic you ask? Apparently it’s the opposite of phallic, and sounds a lot better than “Vagina-looking.” Triangles pointing down can also symbolize a descent into the physical world(Appearance? Modeling?). If you put an upward pointing triangle together with a downward pointing one, you get a Hexagram. A hexagram can be seen as the duality of the two triangles. In Occult circles, the hexagram's meaning is usually closely tied to the fact that it is composed of two triangles pointing in opposite directions. This shows the union of opposites, such as male and female. It can also be read as the union of the spiritual and the physical, with the spiritual reality reaching down and physical reality reaching back up. This intertwining of worlds can also be seen as a representation of the Hermetic Principle “As above, so below." This Hermetic principle has even more interpretations from a vast array of different translations from it’s original Arabic to Greek text, so to save you some time, let’s just say “Duality” is mentioned a lot.
“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” This is what Roberto Sarno, the pompous ego-maniac photographer, tells everyone sitting around the table after the fashion show. It sums up Los Angeles, and it’s role in this film. When doing a film with a re-telling of Narcissus, how a person looks is going to be the movie’s prominent feature. Doing a re-telling of Narcissus involving Models makes sense for obvious reasons, but I can’t think of a better setting for this story than LA. A superficial business in the most superficial of cities. Elle Fanning was 16 while making this film and so was her character Jesse, but does that stop anyone and everyone she meets from exploiting her? Sadly no, because Hollywood will do anything to make a buck. Everyone in this film is obsessed with Jesse’s looks. She just “has that look,” and as the modeling agent tells her in the beginning, “Your very fit, young, and perfect, I would never say your fat, but that doesn’t mean someone won’t.” She goes on to talk about all the young girls just like her who come in every day. Some of which are good, “but you, you’re going to be great.” Jesse tells her she’s 16 and her parents aren’t around. The agent tells her to tell people that she is 19 years old. Jesse doubts anyone will believe her to which the agent replies, “People will believe what they are told.” Unfortunately, that’s what can often happen in LA, people pass the blame around. Not one person questions her age the entire film, or at least asks to see proof of her age.
The animalistic and predatory nature of Hollywood is another recurring theme throughout TND and shown in a number of ways. The Gold Paint Scene shows the photographer(probable Sexual Predator) telling everyone to leave due to a closed set, then proceeds to demand Jesse take her clothes off before rubbing her naked body with gold paint. The Motel Manager (Keanu Reeves) also openly talks about having sex with one of Jesse’s neighbors. A girl who is only 13 (“Check out Room 214, gotta be seen!”) and also assaults Jesse in her dream. When she wakes up he, or possibly someone else, tries to break into her room before breaking in next door to attack/rape another young woman(possibly the 13 year old but it is unclear who is attacked). Animal predators are also heavily featured in TND. A mountain lion sneaks into Jesse’s room while she’s out. Her friend Dean has a Trans Am with an Eagle painted on the hood(bird of prey). At the mansion, there is what appears to be a stuffed cheetah. After Ruby feeds on Jesse, there is a stuffed wolf behind her in the next scene. Ruby also remarks how Jesse has what they’re (Industry/Hollywood) looking for, “that deer in the headlights look.” A deer in the headlights is one of the most innocent and defenseless forms of prey.
Voyeurism plays a key role in LA’s predatory nature. Refn uses the camera in a very voyeuristic way in this film. We first see Jesse through a camera, then Ruby see’s her looking into an opposite mirror kind of spying on her in a way. Modeling in and of itself can sometimes be very voyeuristic but literally EVERYONE is watching Jesse constantly, and not just during photoshoots. During the party Ruby brings Jesse to, Ruby, Gigi, and Sara are all constantly turning their heads to stare at Jesse. They appear to almost be spying on her or at least sizing up their new competition. While talking about the prospects of Jesse’s sex life, Sara says “Everyone wants to know, who is she fucking? Who could she fuck? And is it higher than me?” Sara even tells Jesse “people see you….they notice.” This Voyeurism leads to jealousy. Modeling is a cutthroat industry. It’s kill or be killed. Ruby, Gigi, and Sara chose the former.
As I touched on earlier, Gigi’s had a lot of work done. She lists all of her surgeries to Jesse and tells her she’s been called the “Bionic Woman.” To which Jesse replies, “Is that a compliment.” Jesse is shown as being “perfect” the entire film. Everyone is in awe, with and without jealous undertones. People remark that “Her skin is perfect…Is that your natural hair color?….Is that your real nose?” During the audition with the pompous fashion designer Sarno, woman after woman(dressed in only underwear) do a runway walk for him. He doesn’t look up once…until he sees Jesse. He is blown away by her beauty so much so that he *gulps*. Gigi tells Jesse that Plastics is just good grooming, however Sarno disagrees. After he asks Dean to judge Gigi’s looks (to which Dean replies “she’s fine”) he says, “You can always tell when Beauty is manufactured. If you weren’t born beautiful, you never will be.” This leads to Jesse’s later remark about how women will carve and stuff themselves to look like a second rate version of her. That statement is cold, but true. When it’s not enough, they kill Jesse and try to replicate or steal what she has by devouring her…with mixed results. Ruby looks to have something flowing through her again (Menstruating? New Life/Vitality?). The skin-headed photographer seems to notice a difference in Sara as he replaces his current camera-ready model with her. Gigi becomes violently ill, exits the shoot, and proceeds to throw up Jesse’s eye before killing herself (echoing Sarno’s earlier assertions regarding manufactured beauty). Sara then enters the room, showing no concern for her dying “friend”, before picking up Jesse’s regurgitated eye and eating it. This shows the cutthroat and scavenger-like nature of Sara and the industry/LA in general. TND shows how Hollywood will literally chew you up, and spit you out.
Back to the Narcissism….
In an interview with the Village Voice, Refn was very candid with his views on Narcissism. Specifically his own and how it plays into the films that he makes. Refn was asked about how is more recent films are viewed as more blunt and simplistic than his earlier work. Refn replied: “There’s a difference between having a meaning that is clear and…how should I say this? Having a meaning that’s correct. A difference between a meaning that is clear, and a meaning that explains, or is within convention. The simpler it is, the more complex it becomes. Neon Demon is about beauty, which is written off by many people as being superficial. But generally people have a very complicated relationship to beauty, because it’s really about themselves — your own vanity, how you see yourself, narcissism. Elle [Fanning] and I wanted to make a horror film for a teenage audience about a theme that for them is much more advanced than what we’re used to. You and I were brought up to think of narcissism as a taboo, something negative. My kids’ generation, Elle’s generation, sees it as a virtue. That is so fascinating, and complex. The meaning is so clear, but how crazy is it that this is the way that it’s moved?” He further explains that “I believe that with the ecosystem of entertainment we’re now stepping into, the same rules don’t apply anymore. Like at Cannes, all the times I’ve been there, it’s been the modernists versus the classicists. The classicists cling to a past that they can relate to and understand. My films represent the future. Film began as an experiment, and then it became a form of documentation, then an art form. Then it was nationalized and controlled, and became a mass media opportunity. It became a propaganda opportunity, and a political opportunity. But it was controlled by the groups that distributed it, that showed it, that paid for it, in order to profit from it. Yes, it opened up a little bit here and there. Television was a big change, but all it really did was allow things to be controlled a different way. But at the same time, Hollywood had perfected filmmaking as a money-making entity. Which is beautiful: I see a lot of those movies, and I love money. But the idea of filmmaking as art kind of got lost. So now, with the digital revolution, our cellphones open up a new canvas. This canvas has no control, everything is accessible, opinions don’t matter, there’s an audience for everything. It’s mass noise. The distance between yourself and an audience has been reduced to a button. Our generation sees this mutation, but we’re also the generation that can be left behind. Our kids have a better understanding of this huge new canvas. The cinema has been reinvented in a new way. When you go to Cannes and you see Neon Demon, you react to it. Whether you like it or not, that has nothing to do with it. There’s a diversity of responses. Do you know how hard it is to create that kind of diversity? You gotta hit people on the nose: Some will love it, some will hate it. I tell my children: “Remain singular. Love yourself, trust yourself. Narcissism is a virtue, not a vice. Don’t give in to normalcy. Or to the idea of ‘nice.’ Give them something to talk about.” The Journalist then asks: “Is that why much of the marketing for Neon Demon focuses on you? You yourself were on some posters at Cannes, sitting next to Elle Fanning.” Refn replied: “You’ve got to. In creativity there’s also a narcissism. In the previous movies I’d fallen into myself completely. And I can see myself now through the eyes of the protagonist. Especially in Drive and Neon Demon, I thought, “What would Picasso do? I’ll do that.” - There’s definitely a lot to digest here. Throughout my life I’ve considered Narcissism a taboo and somewhat of a despicable trait, although all of us are probably guilty of Narcissistic thoughts, qualities, etc….at least at some point. Especially now, in the golden age of Twitter and Social Media, Narcissism is spewed every day. When Refn discusses his own Narcissism, I would not normally view it in a positive light. But dammit if he doesn’t bring up valid points. He talks about his recent films as an expression of himself saying “This is who I am” (obviously not always in a literal sense in relation to the characters and their choices). With the medium so heavily controlled by Hollywood and corporations, Filmmaking as an Art form HAS gotten lost to a significant extent. If you’re not making films for yourself or about yourself, you’re making it for them. Refn want’s genuine reactions to his films. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter. He’s making HIS Art, HIS way. If you want to make Art without the constraints of corporations exploiting it to make money or to further an agenda, then Narcissism isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.