Spoilers for The Neon Demon, which I recommend everyone see at least twice.
Looking is everything in Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon. Besides being the kind of cinematic scopophilia masterpiece that we only seem to get every couple of decades (Blow Up; Peeping Tom), its narrative turns on two different definitions of the word "look." How good do you look? And who is looking at you?
But first, another word on scopophilia. I admit to having an indulgent fondness for the male gaze. This is partially because (of course) I have one; and partially because for all its sinister primacy and connotations, the male gaze just seems so sweetly idiotic to me.
As such, it's thrilling to me to see a male artist own and interrogate his own gaze with the wit and sophistication of the kind shown by Refn in The Neon Demon, pulling zero punches and giving zero fucks. I think he might think his gaze is even sillier than I do. Silly, vulgar, nearly criminal, and intensely destructive; The Neon Demon shows us how. It's a movie that has its cake, eats it too, and then walks away laughing while the audience is still trying to figure out what the fuck just happened.
The film creates an intense dialogue between that oldest and most discussed of cinematic traits - the pleasure of looking - and its corollary inverse, the bloody horror of being looked at (and thereby consumed). Quite literally in the latter case, of course; The Neon Demon takes its consumption metaphor to figurative and then literal excess over the course of its story. It does this first by toying, with ever-tightening precision, with the sights and sounds of vampire cinema (the movie is lit and staged like a fever dream of Tony Scott's The Hunger... and listen to Cliff Martinez's score!), and then by going full cannibal (but the boundlessly aesthetic, queer-skewing, and grimly hilarious cannibalism of Bryan Fuller's Hannibal).
The beautiful are literal consumeables in The Neon Demon, and it becomes quickly clear that one framing question in the film - "are you food or sex?" - doesn't actually have a preferable answer. Eaten or fucked, these people exist for the satisfaction of others, only.
The lush, overtly sensualized visual pleasure of every frame of The Neon Demon extends to the animate and inanimate alike. Good lord, just look at the slow-mo glitter cumshots that adorn the opening and closing titles! This is cinema to look at, to enjoy looking at, and to feel bad about enjoying looking at afterwards; and the metaphor extends nicely to the way it, and we, treat the glamazons who make up its cadre of female characters.
Of these, Jesse (Elle Fanning, whose actual age I am fearful to Google, but who has been with us onscreen since she was a child - which is dauntingly significant here) is the presumptive main character, because we spend the majority of our time with her. Not, I think, that this will end up mattering in The Neon Demon's narrative strategy, one which is tied directly to the film's theme of predators and prey.
The film starts with an actual photo shoot - Jesse is covered in fake blood, positioned just so on a chaise lounge, being photographed - before telescoping outward to reveal all the people who will stare at Jesse throughout the narrative. Her naive boyfriend Dean, taking the photographs, will be the first of many. The entire first act of The Neon Demon passes without a single scene where Jesse isn't either being watched, or in the absence of other eyes, watching herself (in a mirror). Don't feel too bad for the commodification of Jesse's beauty by everyone around her - she's doing it, too.
"Sorry, am I staring?" is the first spoken line, emerging as Ruby (Jena Malone) is indeed staring at Jesse in an infinity cascade of mirrors in her dressing room - a million Jesses, a million pairs of observing eyes. It's the literalization of the process of watching a film itself: Ruby and Jesse on the screen, in the scene, looking at one another and standing in for us in doing so; but us, as well, a million silent perverts (plus one pervert director) scoping the frame from the darkness of the movie theatre. This conversation - between the way The Neon Demon and its women are framed, staged, and lit; and our/Refn's omnipresence as observer (inherently male? Laura Mulvey might say "yes") - is a potent part of every scene, even as overt images of gazing start to drain out of the picture as the storyline takes hold.
Jesse is a rural teenager, who has just arrived in L.A. to start a modelling career. Ruby is a makeup artist (and former model?) who has an instant, lustful attraction to the young girl. We meet two of Ruby's "friends" (it's unlikely that any of these people actually like each other, except for Jesse's big-sister fondness for Ruby), Gigi and Sarah, two older models coming to grips with the speed at which the industry has already lost interest in them. Gigi is coping through surgery - "plastics is just good grooming!" she babbles, ickily suggesting the line between shaving all the hair off one's body and shaving parts of the body off, too. Sarah, in a later scene, reacts far more viscerally to young, virginally fresh Jesse: she drinks her blood.
I suppose if you're going to drink blood (or, later on, eat a person outright) to avail yourself of the power of their beauty, you'd be well advised to go young. One of the most disturbing - and, in hindsight, disturbingly on-the-nose - aspects of the conversation in The Neon Demon is how Refn continuously ties the consumption of beauty to unspoken, pedophilic (ok, ephebophilic) attraction. Beauty isn't enough; youth, and sexualized youth, is the magic elixir that all of The Neon Demon's characters flirt with, under the guise of "ooh, aren't we naughty" social propriety. Jesse is immediately positioned as younger than socially acceptable (she just turned 16; her agent harshly cautions her to always say she's 19), but is just as immediately sexualized as well ("Who are you fucking? Who could you fuck?"); and the community of men, and eventually women, around her make little secret of their magnificent obsession with the exploitation and control of what's underneath her clothes.
Jesse, who plaintively claims to have no talents of her own, but that she can make money on her beauty, seems to have an understanding of this transactional nature of their, and our, desire for her body - even if she is also aware that the outcome of that transaction is beyond her experience. It's a devil's bargain on her part - the naive belief that she can trade on her looks without being, eventually, used, consumed, and discarded. But The Neon Demon is about, among other things, the disgusting hypocrisy at the center of that whole idea: the vulgar attraction to youth and beauty (in women); and the speed and facility with which we (men; cinema) move on to a new object of our desire as soon as we've used up the previous one.
As much as Jesse's beauty is the text of nearly every scene, it is the subtext of every shot: ephemeral and romantic as she walks along the twilit edge of Los Angeles in a gauzy mauve dress; wraith-like and razor-edged as she leaves the catwalk after her mental mind-walk with the Neon Demon. This perplexing vision in the center of the film - of three inverted neon triangles, which pulse "Pink Pussy" once Jesse comes into her own as a fashion model - is both the gateway to the world she's been trying to enter since we first laid eyes on her, and the bait at the center of the trap for the child who is, ultimately, not prepared for the violence at the heart of the beauty myth. Jesse, staring into the kaleidoscopic neon vulva, looking unsettlingly like the Childlike Empress from The Neverending Story as she studies herself and kisses her own reflection, is already on her way out.
It should be nauseating, and it is, even before the cannibalism and retching and vomiting that follows. This is a Grand Guignol version of a social annihilation that we all take as normal every time we go to the movies, look at a billboard, or double-click on an image online. With its dreams of being mouth-fucked with a switchblade, and its (not dreams?) of a 13-year-old being raped next door, the back half of The Neon Demon turns into a exhalation of cruelty and horror - and not the horror being advertised, either.
"All we have are our bodies on Fury Road," I wrote last year about Mad Max 4, a film (also co-starring Abbey Lee) whose meaning and warmth came from what its characters choose to do, to give, with their fragile physical forms. The Neon Demon is the dark flipside of Fury Road's idea. Here, the bodies are given over to desecration, the destruction of the self and society - true horror, in the classical sense - until one of the women is literally fucking a corpse, before she and her friends eat Jesse... in order to contain, even if briefly, the glorious, sinful power of her looks.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.