Friday, 22 July 2016

The Neon Demon (2016)

Spoilers below 

Imagine an unconscionably unhealthy but irresistible dessert. Dark chocolate, rich flavour, perhaps with a fleck of edible gold-leaf on top. Or perhaps something with chemical colouring, bright, absurd blues and greens not seen anywhere in nature. You suspect that it will probably shorten your life slightly, but you can't resist it all the same, and you try not to think about what went into producing the impossibly intense flavours.

That's what this film is like. It is luxuriously decadent and profoundly unhealthy. This is a film that revels in superficiality, in duplicitous surfaces, and bathes in the bright neon glow of the artificial. It is a film that is far more concerned with style than substance, and the style in question is so engaging that it captivates and entrances the viewer.

It follows a young woman, a just-turned-sixteen virgin named Jesse, who arrives in L.A. looking to become a model. She's too young to understand the world she's in, but old enough to know she needs friends. Old enough to know that her beauty gives her power. She transitions from innocence to corruption, her hubris lying in her open acknowledgement of her looks and her mocking condemnation of women who 'starve to death' trying to approach her beauty.

What makes her so special? Her beauty is natural. It's all her, no surgery or artifice has gone into it. And yet, for her first professional shoot, she's stripped naked just so she can be covered in gold paint. Her natural beauty becoming distorted by a literal layer of falsehood. The surface obscuring the interior, the artificial obscuring the natural.

Early on we're told that women are more likely to buy lipsticks named for food or sex, and the predatory women (whose beauty is so affected that they are almost posthuman, or at least inhuman) that our heroine 'befriends' decide that Jesse is most certainly food. I mentioned her hubris above: her punishment is to be literally eaten by these grotesque creatures, these parodies of humanity.

Is it a satire of the fashion industry? Probably, but its satire is so obvious that my instinct is to say that the satire itself is a layer of superficiality, of deceit. It is so blunt, so lacking in nuance in its critique of an industry everyone knows is vicious that I don't want to grant that it is about that at all: but maybe that's just because I want a film so visually splendid to have some depth beneath its surface.

This is a film about surfaces more than anything else, about surfaces that glide and flow and move over unknown and invisible depths. Depths so deep that, maybe, they might as well not exist at all. The concern it has for the surface and its disdain for the inner perhaps suggests that the film should be regarded entirely as what it appears to be on the surface: a visually striking erotic horror film with pretensions of satire (and oh that soundtrack...). 

And yet the film undermines this reading with its conclusion. At a photo shoot featuring two of the trio who have consumed Jesse's beauty like a mere resource, one falls violently ill, vomits up one of Jesse's eye balls, and dies cutting herself open to 'get her out'. The revenge of the suppressed interior!

The most clear juxtaposition in the film is between the artificial and the natural, more so than between the superficial and the deep simply because the deep is something we have to assume, rather than something we're shown as clearly as the natural. As I said above, Jesse's beauty is distinct because it is not the result of artifice; she was born beautiful and that's that. In contrast, Gigi, one of the three women who will (again, quite literally) eat Jesse for her beauty, has had so much plastic surgery her surgeon nicknames her 'The Bionic Woman' ('Is that a compliment?' asks Jesse). Incidentally, it is Gigi that dies vomiting up Jesse's remains at the end of the film. The revenge of the exploited natural, and the suppressed interior!

The natural/artificial angle is one that it is worth spending time thinking about. We hear again and again that natural beauty is always superior to artificial beauty, but is the suggestion that natural beauty is simply more beautiful, or that its naturalness is the source of its superiority in itself? That is, the natural isn't simply more beautiful, but that natural beauty's status as natural, and not the product of human ingenuity, grants it an inner authenticity that cannot be replicated artificially because such replication would, precisely, rob it of that authentic quality. It is the product of chance, not design, and has a unique value because of that. The artificial attempts to subsume the natural as pure resource, only for the natural, the inner, the bloody guts of the thing itself to be literally vomited up.

Furthermore, this juxtaposition is exemplified in the very shooting of the film; the fashion, party and photo shoot sequences are stylised to the point of being almost hallucinogenic, while the scenes outside these settings are mundane and naturalistic.

A few final and more precise words: the performances are all very good, even (no, really) Keanu Reeves' offering as a spectacularly loathsome motel manager. Much of the limelight is, however, stolen by Jean Malone as Ruby. Malone is able to play the character as affable and friendly while having an obvious dark side to her.

The dialogue is somewhere between stilted and naturalistic in a way that is reminiscent of Lynch (whose Mulholland Drive is an overt influence), and the interactions between the women are pleasantly bitchy. Further, throughout the film Cliff Martinez's electronic (in places almost industrial) score carries you along like a tide, weaving into the visuals with remarkable skill, reminiscent of the eerie-though-beat-driven work of Pye Corner Audio.

By no means for the faint of heart, but an absolute treasure all the same.


  1. My thoughts exactly, quite a bit of fodder to a Heideggerian with it's emphasis on the nature/techne dichotomy.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, always appreciated! I'm disappointed this movie did as badly in the box office as it did...