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The Neon Demon

June 24, 2016
The Neon Demon

The “male gaze” is far from a rarified academic term anymore. Everyone knows by now about the tendency to objectify women: to reduce them to passive objects to be acted upon rather than take them as subjects who can act for themselves. But outside of dry philosophical language, what does it really mean to “objectify” a woman?

Nicolas Winding Refn knows. After two decades exploring various facets of masculinity — culminating in his most commercially successful film to date, Drive, and its almost anti-commercial follow-up, Only God Forgives — Refn turns his lens towards the feminine with The Neon Demon. And it’s every bit as shocking and challenging as we’ve come to expect from him.

In part, this plays like a response to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan — another psychological art-horror gem wrestling with the feminine. But that film stood as a distaff counterpart to The Wrestler, both dealing with different sides of the drive towards excellence in performance. Nina was driven to the extreme in her search for a transcendent mastery of her art.

In Refn’s world of Los Angeles fashion modeling, though, there is no art to master. Jesse (Elle Fanning) herself admits that she can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t act. She isn’t particularly smart. But she’s very, very pretty, and she knows she can make money from that. Modeling takes all the objectification of the world and concentrates it into a microcosm where a girl like Jesse is rewarded handsomely not to do anything, but to simply be. Pretty.

Where Brit and Candy from Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers twisted and subverted the panopticon of their young, female existence to serve their own ends for once, the models in The Neon Demon submit themselves to it willingly, and even revel in it. Mirrors are everywhere; these young women cease to exist except in their own reflections. But mirrors can cut as well as reflect.

The first of them that Jesse meets is actually not a model at all. Ruby (Jena Malone) is a makeup artist, which makes her a sort of parasitic hanger-on, who thrives on the decay. There’s a whole ecosystem of them in the sprawling city, from the photographers and designers and agents and surgeons, down to men like Hank (Keanu Reeves), the guy who runs Jesse’s motel and uses it to prey on innocent young girls who run west with dreams of fame and beauty.

Ruby’s friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, herself one of the models cast as Immortan Joe’s property in Mad Max: Fury Road), are in more direct competition with Jesse, and they act a lot less friendly towards her than Ruby does. They’ve been in this business a lot longer than fresh-faced Jesse has, and they’ve learned the cunning means of survival models use at each others’ expense, desperate to slow their own inevitable mortality. They can’t all retire to become the top agent like Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks).

Gigi embodies the objectification most fully, with her proud embrace of plastic surgery. She first went in for a breast reduction — so she’d “look more like a hanger” to display the clothes she models — but the surgeon found plenty more ways to modify her, crafting her more fully into this world’s ideal. She and Sarah are desperate to attract the attention of the best designers and photographers; to be sure that the panopticon is watching them. Embracing the gaze is their attempt to take back power from the surveillance state of womanhood. But it’s a dangerous game to play, for everyone involved.

That attention comes to Jesse without effort, and it’s addictive. The attention that can be exciting in small, measured, and controlled doses comes with side effects most women find distasteful. But Jesse gulps at it, and by the time she gets her first hangover she’s already too far gone to escape. It’s disorientingly seductive, as Refn shows us in a fantastic, hallucinatory sequence that calls to mind the techno-psychedelia of Glazer’s Under the Skin or Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow.

But all this is about the models’ orientation around the gaze; it’s through Ruby that Refn exposes the nature of the gaze itself. Applying makeup for modeling shoots isn’t always the steadiest of jobs, so she works for another, more regular client: the morgue. This is the true meaning of objectification, which takes a person and strips her of her agency, rendering her into an object to be manipulated, directed, photographed, and used. A model — the extreme limit of human objectification — is nothing more than a corpse, and the modeling industry is a charnel-house. This is what it means to reduce a person to a collection of her parts, to be used and consumed, and if the way Refn renders it on screen is horrifying and disturbing, we must ask ourselves why we turn a blind eye to it in the real world.

It goes far beyond modeling, though. That may be the most extreme and literal version of treating women as objects, but it’s endemic to the society that Refn’s film mirrors. If the fashion industry turns women into corpses to use them for their appearance, then every cat-call is a knife-wound, carving out a piece of its target for the viewer’s pleasure. If, as one woman reportedly said while storming out of a screening in protest, “this is a movie for sick people“, then what is our society made of?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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