Horror films are really not my genre, but I do admit that if the storyline is good, and the special effects not too distasteful, they can make for compelling viewing. With aspiring model, Jesse, moving to Los Angeles, and getting gobbled up by predatory beauties, Nicolas Refn’s 2016 film, “The Neon Demon”, certainly underscores my profound dislike for the genre. Having had enough of violent men, Refn decided to concentrate his talents on violent men, disguised as women.
I decided that I’d made enough films about violent men, and I wanted to do a film with only women in the film…
The Neon Demon has no dialogue, no credible characters, and even less plot. I do wonder why the cast – including Keanu Reeves, who could surely have done better – accepted to participate in such a bottom of the shelf horror movie. Provocative, it certainly is, with necrophilia, aborted lesbianism, and indigestion from eating one eyeball too many, high-up on the list of daring scenes. Sadly though, the movie has little else. Even the scene that was supposed to bring a little bit of a philosophical inquiry, turned out disappointingly short. For Jesse’s aspiring boyfriend, Jack, inner beauty is much more important than good looks. No sooner having said that, he left the bar, after being shown the red card by the object of his desires. Poor Jack was not even able to elaborate his thoughts. He so desperately wanted to love her for what she was, and not what she wanted to look like – them. “No,” she replied, “they would kill to look like me.” A subtle difference, of course.
Whilst some of the scenes are, from an esthetic point of view, well done, you cannot ignore the never-ending techno music, that seems to have been composed under the influence of a high dose of LSD, and several double Bourbons. Although the film bathes in gothic undertones – which is not a problem, if you like that sort of thing – no single scene seems realistic enough, in both content, and body language of the characters. Even necrophiliac Ruby – the make-up artist who seems to fancy living blondes as well as dead ones – managed to spoil her erotic prowesses with a consenting cadaver, by spitting in order to make a kiss more enjoyable. One notable exception to these highly improbable scenes, however, is Jesse’s more than dubious motel, run by the most deranged manager, since Norman Bates, in Psycho. Jesse’s room is ransacked by a mountain lion, who seems to be the only character in the movie, managing to look natural, and not resembling a bitchy dummy.
I can’t write, I can’t draw, I can’t sing, but I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty. – Jesse
I would forgive Refn for exposing me to bad taste, if I knew that he was trying to convey a serious message, relating the problems that women, in particular, can encounter when it comes to physical appearance. Instead, Refn projects a terrifying message to young women who feel that they are not as attractive as others. It’s just tough luck girls (and boys, for that matter). We are to forget about inner qualities, because “prettiness” is all that counts, beauty is the only thing worth killing for. Although this is nowhere more blatant than in the world of modelling and advertising, can it also be true in everyday life? The glossy models are portrayed as nothing more than bits of meat, immobilized by the sheer length of their stilettos, and the tightness of their outfits. These women are fetichized for their appearance, and vilified for their conduct. Whilst fighting between each other to achieve supremacy, they do not hesitate to gang up, in order to fend off any potential competition. We are told that Jesse has a certain “it”, that the others don’t. We never discover what that is, but I presume it to be her natural beauty, as opposed to the fake beauty of her older rivals.
In an interview with Vulture, Refn declared the film “beyond feminist”, but “all about women.”
I consider this movie to be beyond feminist because it’s not quote-unquote political. But is it all about women? Absolutely. There is no man who has a place as the movie progresses along. And the men that are in the movie are only there possessing women because women are allowing them to do so.
There is no need for men in the movie, because all the men are trapped within the bodies of the female characters. In portraying, as he does, an insecure but highly dangerous 16-year-old, and narcistic blondes, so obsessed by every inch of their bodies, as they reach their “sell-by date”, Refn has brilliantly managed to “transgenderise” all female oriented sexism, into his female characters. In so doing, Jesse transforms herself from a seemingly trembling and unsecure teenager, into a narcistic glamour model, tenderly kissing the multiple images of her uncontrollable ego, during her first cat walk. Did she already have this trait in her? Probably, as her mother knew only too well, by calling her “dangerous”. Jesse represents the ideal 16-year-old, in a man’s world – beautifully pure and docile, unforgivingly calculating and self-aware. An explosive cocktail that certainly excites older men.
There is something very sexy and intoxicating and powerful about being the beautiful girl in your school, because there’s so few of them. It’s a very provocative thing to even fantasize about, because we tell each other that beauty is all about the inside. But there’s also this part of everyone — I don’t care who they are — that has vanity, and is haunted by physical beauty.
The moral lesson of the “story” – if there is one – is that, for Refn at least, violence perpetrated by men is peanuts, compared to that perpetrated by women. Yes, women are better at being violent because they are more complicated than their male counterparts.
One of the great controversial novels of all time is Lolita, and you can certainly discuss who is the demon, and not, in that. Because men are easy. They are really dumb, and women are so much more complex and sophisticated.
Not surprising, then, that women get the blame for being attacked by men, and teenage girls and young women seem to find themselves in an impossible situation, concerning their physical appearance. As a society, we are conditioning fragile teenagers, into shaping their appearance to the detriment of their psyche and well-being. And when they do listen to our advice, we swiftly accuse them of consciously wanting to draw the attention of men, and complaining to us, once they get too much of it.
Of all the characters in the movie, the only one uttering a semblance of sanity, is Jack, who just wanted to be Jesse’s boyfriend. Such was his noble intent, that he even paid $140 for the damages caused by the mountain lion. In the bar, he could have quoted the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who wrote,
Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.
Beauty is indeed, “in the eye of the beholder”, but in the case of “The Neon Devil”, at least one eye finishes up on the ground, somewhere between the patio and the bathroom.