The Neon Demon and the Superficiality of Beauty

The Neon Demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is a superficial film, plain and simple. But, c’mon, who doesn’t like a boss bitch that knows she looks good? Many people will praise it for it’s stunning visuals but will consider it lacking in story and character development. It’s essentially a fashion film (a film that uses styling/design as a means to heighten the narrative realm), which fuses generic tropes with temperate acting and aims high to please; it walks the line between commercial and art film. Like with all its characters, surfaces and presentation matter but it is what’s underneath that is sickening.

The film is set in a sleek and glamorous Los Angeles within the world of competitive fashion modeling where if you don’t fit the look then there is no room for you. It revolves around Jesse (Elle Fanning), the angelic lead, trying out modeling because she’s “not good at anything else.” Fanning is exquisite as the baby-faced ingénue that bargains for more than she can handle. She befriends Ruby (Jena Malone) a makeup artist that introduces her to Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee Kershaw), the other power-hungry models. The ones who know the pitfall of the industry. Plastic surgery and sleeping your way to the top may be cliché, but still are true tactics in this world where rules are meant to be broken. They round out the pseudo-clique of pretty girls for this Mean Girls-politics, knife-wielding escapade.  This emphasis on women who use beauty as a tool for power is especially important in the arc of several characters. These are the issues Neon Demon will attempt to tackle. The way the industry will suck you in and spit you right back out.

As if this isn’t obvious, the film’s central theme is about beauty, one of the most elusive words of humankind. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, eh? Well that may be true, but in this case it’s what everyone wants. What I find intriguing about the film is how it toys with the idea of beauty as aesthetics and particularly how it relates to standards put on women to the point where in some scenes the actresses look alien. Refn presents lavishly detailed sets which has become his auteurial style. Known for the film Drive, another glossy cautionary tale, his use of slow-paced sequences soundtracked by electronic beats will leave fans wanting more. The fluorescent lights with a pop of color, a nod to horror classic Suspiria, create the vibrant yet perilous tone. The film contains plenty of loopholes and cameos by Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Keanu Reeves as an angsty motel owner. If you are hoping for a straightforward story that makes sense, please run away. The Neon Demon uses dream sequences that distort the reality and potentially distract from the narrative.

We’ve been down this rabbit hole before: the story of a young woman moving to the big city with even bigger dreams only to realize the tragedy that is seeking fame. Think David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, an agonizing and disjointed film that, with several viewings becomes a heartbreaking character study of a broken woman. With its commentary on celebrity culture, and the Hollywood industry it’s a perfect companion to Neon Demon as a film that strives to get to the bottom of this complex web of beauty, perception/deception, and power. Though, don’t get me wrong, Demon really pushes these female characters to the extreme, often testing the waters of what it means to be a badass and if they’ll do what it takes to get to the top.

The Neon Demon is like a Sweet Tart, candy coated with some bite. It doesn’t solve anything but it adds to this canon of films, another example being Black Swan, that get under your skin and immerse you in their form centered around female characters that question their own sense of reality. It’s gruesome, fantastical, and provocative, with a lot of fabulous jaw dropping scenarios. It’s a whirlwind of spectacular costumes that will leave you gagging!


Joey Molina is a body genres aficionado that enjoys cupcakes and donuts.