In many ways, womanhood in the Western world is a zero-sum game. You’re the “it” girl or you’re nothing. You’re beautiful or ugly. You’re virtuous or evil. You’re fresh or you’re spoiled. But where does this brutal, winner-take-all model leave friendship between women? Or romance? If another woman’s beauty could spell irrelevance for your own, how could you feel anything for her but paranoia and jealousy? Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2016 horror thriller The Neon Demon, the story of a young, beautiful ingenue breaking into the modeling scene in LA and running afoul of a coven of envious women, digs its gleaming talons deep into that question.
Winding Refn’s film has little interest in subtlety in its dissection of adversarial relationships in the Los Angeles modeling world. The first we see of newcomer Jesse (Elle Fanning), she’s lying on a vintage couch with fake blood smeared over her body and pooling on the floor around her. When she attends a rave a short while later, the models and beautician with whom she visits the bathroom openly refer to her as “fresh meat” and discuss which of her body parts they’d most like to have. Its depictions of jealousy are frank and callous, its view of femininity lonely and fearful.
In their lives of professional objectification, models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) have parted company with their ability to relate to themselves as people, much less to other women. They see only collections of things they aren’t, and of things they’re better than. Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist whose second job is—tellingly—as a mortician’s assistant, relates to Jesse as something to be possessed, a doll onto which she can project her emotional needs. Modeling agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) encourages Jesse to lie about her age in order to sign with her agency.
An invisible web of exploitation, envy, lust, and disdain connects the film’s women far more powerfully than any of their stunted relationships or abortive trysts. Even their relationships to their own bodies—Gigi’s dysmorphic flight from her self-image through repeated plastic surgery, Jesse’s narcissistic fixation on her natural beauty—are shallow and approval-seeking, sapped of empathy. The film posits true beauty as something the chosen few embody and the rest strive futilely to imitate, a poisonous, glittering dream which snuffs out all possible connections between women before they can draw breath.
An essential component to the unattainability of the film’s idea of beauty is its removal from the everyday world. By a kind of arcane process rooted in the youth-obsessed modeling industry’s rapid discarding of its workers as they age, beauty in the world of the film has become untouchable, a bizarre abstraction passed like a crown from one girl to the next, never part of them, but merely resting with them until they become irrelevant and are replaced.
That abstraction is what Jesse glimpses when she passes out in her cheap motel room. Overcome by shock and blood loss, she collapses on the floor with hair splayed artfully opposite a spray of fallen petals, lit like she’s being shot for a glamor catalog. Unconscious, she sees a glowing neon symbol, an image which recurs throughout the film in various forms. When she is drawn into a well at the symbol’s center during a runway show, she undergoes a dramatic shift in personality, kissing her own image in the mirrored tunnel within and emerging cruel and narcissistic after spending most of the film as a shy, well-meaning young girl.
Her murder and ritual cannibalization by Gigi, Sarah, and Ruby follows this development almost immediately, as though they were waiting for some obscure sign that she’d ripened fully. The moment beauty settles its mantle on her shoulders, the other women close in to tear it apart and claim what scraps they can for themselves. So long as their goal is to succeed in the world they’ve chosen to inhabit, this is the only means by which they can remain relevant. The next generation of talent must be snuffed out in its cradle and its vital essence stolen.
Another facet of the film’s abstraction of beauty lies in its fraught presentation of the conflict between “natural” and surgically enhanced or altered appeal. Jesse’s effortless beauty is openly envied by her fellow models and held up as the pinnacle of achievement by the industry’s artists and designers, while plastic surgery is derided as aspirational posing. During one memorable scene, fashion designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) asks Gigi to stand up so that Jesse’s boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) can assess her. Dean, pushed to give an opinion, mutters uncomfortably that she’s “fine,” to which Sarno replies with delighted contempt “Yes, that’s the perfect word for it. She’s..fine.”
Gigi’s procedures are depicted as pitiable attempts to attain the kind of easy, unaffected grace other women come into naturally. It’s a dicey portrayal of plastics in a culture which routinely depicts the pursuit of cosmetic surgery as a pastime for weak-willed and delusional women, a sour note in the film’s otherwise thoughtful ruminations on feminine self-hate. Regardless, the message is clear: Beauty isn’t something the film’s women can really own for themselves, or achieve through even the most grueling effort. Instead it is awarded at random and made real by fickle tastemakers. Does Jesse even have it, or have the powerful men around her just decided she’s the flavor of the month?
IN THE BLOOD
The film sublimates its anxieties around beauty and desire with acts of occult cannibalistic savagery. When, after beating Sarah in an audition, Jesse finds the older woman weeping in a bathroom and tries to comfort her, Sarah sucks at a wound Jesse suffers from a shard of broken glass. It’s an abject act, and our glimpse of Sarah kneeling bloody-mouthed and gaunt amid the shattered pieces of a mirror after Jesse pushes her away is animalistic in the extreme. Nude under her overcoat, panting on all fours, she looks ravenous. Starving.
Later, Ruby and the two models stalk and kill Jesse after she declaims on the subject of her own impossible to fake or mimic beauty. After eating her, Ruby soaks in a bathtub full of her blood while Gigi and Sarah shower in more. Winding Refn has mentioned the life of Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory—said to have bathed in the blood of young women to retain her own youth and beauty—as a source of inspiration for The Neon Demon. While tales of Báthory’s depravity are almost certainly at least wild exaggerations of more mundane crimes, certainly the two stories are very much concerned with the concentration of beauty in a single person and how that quality might be extracted and consumed.
Perhaps the most interesting example of this idea occurs near the end of the movie. After Jesse’s death, Ruby—whose advances first confused and then frightened the younger woman—lies in the girl’s the grave atop her body. It’s a surprisingly tender moment as Ruby murmurs something inaudible to the corpse, stroking its hair. Flowers nod around the grave in a gentle breeze. We’re given no indication that Ruby wants success or fame, that she longs to be a model like her friends. Instead we see her as a sexually frustrated person, masturbating atop the cadavers she’s supposed to be beautifying for their funerals.
Her longing for Jesse, a definitively adult lust for a defenseless teenager, is just as twisted and regressive as Gigi and Sarah’s desire to, in a sense, become Jesse. If these women were able to determine for themselves what beauty meant, if they could form real relationships with themselves and each other, borne out of something other than panic at the inevitable march of time and trends, what would their lives be like? How else might Ruby have gone about meeting her own needs? Cut off from each other, they are reduced to a state of oral fixation, devouring the object of their desire like greedy infants sucking at a bloody teat.