I’d heard amazing things about The Neon Demon (the jaw dropping cinematography, beauty as danger, and of course Keanu Reeves playing nasty) so I thought I’d better watch it in time for it to be No1 on my “Best films of 2016” list. And in the end I couldn’t decide whether it should go on that or my “Worst films of 2016” list instead.
Because while it is as astonishingly beautiful to look at as its teenage protagonist, Jesse, at its best it’s a classic example of style over substance.
And at its worst like having the toxicity of female beauty standards mansplained to you. That’s not to say Neon Demon isn’t worth seeing – it looks extraordinary, there are some good performances and the story is entertainingly told, but if you’re a woman you’re unlikely to learn anything new. The message is heavy-handed and I spent a lot of the running time trying not to frown in case I made my wrinkles worse.
Jesse (a luminous Elle Fanning) is a 16 year old with no family who has pitched up in LA to become a model. At an early photoshoot she meets Ruby, a make up artist, who takes Jesse under her wing and introduces her to other established models and industry people. Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcoat), both models, are brittle, weary and acutely jealous of anyone younger and more beautiful than them. Gigi in particular is trying to fix everything with surgery and more surgery. But jealousy – and the knife – is getting them nowhere as they are at the mercy of the male designers and photographers who will move the beauty goalposts on a whim and care nothing for the feelings or mental health of the young girls they build up then discard so quickly.
Christina Hendricks is only in a couple of scenes as Jesse’s new modelling agency boss Roberta Hoffman but she’s brilliant. I loved her line, to the skinny Jesse: “I think you’re perfect. I would never say you’re fat. But someone else will.” Roberta knows full well that the parental signature demanded for the paperwork will be forged – she even tells Jesse to says she’s 19, not 18, as 18 is “too on the nose”. Everyone in the industry notices Jesse’s beauty, her special something. A designer calls her “a diamond in a sea of glass”. Sarah says “who wants sour milk when you can have fresh meat?”
There’s a scene in the ladies room at a party, where what is meant to be a place of safety and bonding for women is turned into a place to bully. Jesse, Ruby, Sarah and Gigi have a conversation about lipstick names being either food or sex-related, but really it’s a way to make Jesse feel even more uncomfortable and more of an outsider, and she ends up claiming to be promiscuous when she’s clearly a virgin.
Models Sarah and Gigi are stunning though Gigi is by now so cut away and put back together by surgery and treatments that she is a smooth, glossy parody of beauty. Make up artist Ruby stands out as she is quite plain by comparison and dresses very mannishly – the only pictures she is in are selfies.
Gigi, Ruby and Sarah are obsessed with Jesse and fascinated by her allure. Gradually Jesse becomes as narcissistic as the rest of them, starting to enjoy the repeated humiliations Sarah in particular endures as her star is in freefall while Jesse’s is on the rise. In some ways Jesse’s conversion to hardened narcissism isn’t a surprise as she needs to protect herself. She even tells Ruby: “I’m not as helpless as I look”. Ruby on the other hand is clearly desperately lonely and at one point climbs on top of the naked embalmed body of a beautiful young woman in the mortuary where she works making up the bodies, and rubs herself up and down.
Keanu Reeves as Hank the Pasadena motel manager isn’t in that many scenes but my god he’s a nasty thug. Calling him simply sleazy is an understatement. He’s vile to Jesse then tries to break into her room when she’s asleep. When that fails he goes into the next room and rapes a 13 year old runaway.
The last few scenes are a very literal and obvious take on the film’s themes with death, blood, and beauty in abundance. Gigi spends more time trying to throw up what turns out to be Jesse’s eyeball than my cat spends dislodging its annual Christmas furball. And literally consuming Jesse makes Sarah covetable again as a model.
The music is amazing from the beginning, and the whole look and feel of the film is shockingly stunning (or stunningly shocking). The established models, the catwalk shows, the make up and the LA beach views drip lushness; then there’s the basic functionality of Jesse’s motel room, and the mortuary; and innocence – Jesse’s initially decidedly unsexy wafting summer outfits, and her wavy hair standing out against the sleekness of Gigi’s. You could probably tell the whole story with no dialogue whatsoever as everything is told via the scenery. It’s a hypnotic film and proceeds slowly as Jesse doesn’t say much and when she does it’s slow. I kept wanting her to hurry up: “you’ve only got five years max then your modelling career will be over! TALK QUICKER!”
The messages aren’t new. If you are a woman over 30, you will be well aware about the currency of beauty and when it runs out, of the pressures to fix yourself artificially only to be told that actually only natural loveliness – a mix of genes, youth, and the time you live in, none of which are actually to your credit – is truly real and lovely. And of course being told this by (mostly) men who want to sell us something or use us to sell something. Under these pressures it’s no wonder that the women in the film are by the end all monsters, intent on consuming each other.
The Neon Demon is truly astonishing to look at, and to listen to. But the message is deliberately heavy-handed, and I don’t need to be told again what I already know about women and beauty.