In art and fashion, youth might as well be a currency. The beauty, energy, and spirit that comes with it can open any door, and engineer every opportunity. It is the product that is peddled and the language that is spoken. One moment you have it, and you are the name on everyone’s lips – the next you don’t, and you’re struggling to have your voice heard and your messages returned.
But long ago, we reached something of a tipping point and squeezed youth too tightly in our fists in the name of art and fashion. Where does that leave us? Should we consider our own actions and feel shame at the blood on our hands? Or should we callously wipe them clean on our trousers and reach for something with more spirit, more energy, and younger still?
THE NEON DEMON is the story of Jessie (Elle Fanning). 16-years-old and just off the bus from Nowheresville, USA, Jessie has dreams of making it as a model. As we first meet her, she is posing for provocative high-art photos with a young photographer named Dean (Karl Glusman). Model and photographer soon become something of an item, perhaps helped in small part because she doesn’t know anyone else in town. As Jessie gets cleaned up, she meets a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone).
Ruby offers to take her under her wing, introduce her around, and generally show her the ropes. With images of her sketchy motel room dancing in her head, Jessie readily accepts Ruby’s offer. At her first party, she is introduced to two other models named Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). The girls seem both unimpressed and leery of Jessie all at once, and begin offering advice that is actually insults in disguise.
It doesn’t matter much to Jessie, since she takes Dean’s work and uses it to get the attention of a top modelling firm run by Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks). Hoffman sees something in Jessie and signs her immediately, but has her lie about her age and pass herself off as 19.
Soon Jessie is working with top photographers, doing runway work for top designers, drawing the admiration of Ruby, and spiking the jealousy of Gigi and Sarah. How long can someone as innocent as Jessie survive in such a cutthroat environment? How can fragile egos like Sarah and Gigi remain intact in the face of heightened competition and a changing ideal?
How long until looks actually kill?
THE NEON DEMON seemingly wants to be a condemnation of the fashion industry. It wants to underline how vicious the business is, how self-obsessed, how manipulative, and how ego-centric the people who work within it are. It makes no bones about the fact that as much as this is a platform where the physical ideal is established, that ideal is so fleeting and so fucked-up that no one person can ever hope to attain it. And yet, we all do. We all compare ourselves to that ideal and we all lust after that ideal…the body and face that are too young, too isolated, and too altered to ever hope to attain.
However, the film isn’t content with being an arty skewering. No, it has to go and turn into a literal skewering and bring metaphor after metaphor to life in continually appalling manner. It seemingly takes delight in objectifying young Jessie. Some say she is the ideal; others that she doesn’t have what it takes. Some seem unable to stop staring at her every line and curve; others seem ready to end her life before it has actually begun. It’s all played for high art – all trying to make a point about the dehumanization and sexualization of a minor.
All of this is before things take a turn for the outlandish.
Indelible as some of the imagery and direction of THE NEON DEMON is, I have to believe that in 2016 one can comment on the damage we are doing to both young women and society at-large without resulting to scenes of sexual and physical abuse. No amount of vibrant colours or throbbing dubstep can make up for the fact that we are being forced to watch an industry chew up and spit out an innocent minor (literally).
This is a story without sympathy, without redemption, and without restraint. It is freakishly handsome, which is the only thing that allows it to be endured, but a stylish depiction of something deplorable is still, in the end, something deplorable. For the few points he can put on the board by showing a still-young artist feeling threatened by an even younger artist, he loses as many by failing to have any restraint in the late-going.
Early on, this film is vicious towards its subject but still seems to have a moral compass in the form of Jesse. For reasons I cannot understand, the film decides to completely shatter that compass into a million tiny pieces in the late-going…leaving us in dark waters, cold, adrift, and without hope.
In some ways, I shouldn’t be surprised and shocked that this is what Nicolas Winding Refn has done with THE NEON DEMON, since in a lot of ways it’s what he usually does. He never wants us to sit too comfortably in the theatre, always wants to dazzle us visually, and seemingly considers it a badge of honour when we are horrified but cannot look away. Ordinarily, I can get on-board with this approach, but this one feels a step too far. If we ever wanted to watch the world devour a young woman the way the world of this movie devours Jessie, that time has passed.
The world as it is doesn’t need to sacrifice the soul of another innocent woman in the name of making a point.
Ultimately, that’s the sticking point. There are incredible sights and sounds in THE NEON DEMON. It is a technical achievement as good or better than anything we have seen in the movies this year. With bold colours and confident rhythms, it struts on to the catwalk and dares us not to look. But that’s just the thing – we don’t want to look at this anymore (if we ever really did). Art and fashion is about “the now”, and in that light THE NEON DEMON feels so five years ago.
We don’t want to look, because looking means looking back…and we have too much work to do in the name of body image and feminism now to get artfully pensive about how we got here.