Young women confronted by the horror of exploitation

 

The Neon Demon (R). Director: Nicolas Winding Refn. Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves. 117 minutes

Darren Aronofsky's acclaimed 2010 film Black Swan demonstrated the potency of horror generic conventions in probing deeply into the human psyche and human relationships. It explored the self-mutilations, self-sacrifices and brutal narcissism involved in creative expression — specifically, in the youth- and body-obsessed world of professional dance — exaggerating them to the point of literalness, and exploiting them for their most horrific implications.

Nicolas Winding Refn's divisive new thriller, The Neon Demon, shares many of Black Swan's potencies, and many of its discomforts. Again we have a male filmmaker ogling the professional and inner lives of young women in an industry that exploits their physical bodies — in this instance, high-fashion modelling. The prurient male gaze that this implies is part and parcel, thematically speaking, of a film whose characters' objectification is near absolute.

Our first glimpse of Jesse (Fanning), a 16-year-old model recently arrived in LA, is of her sprawled on a sofa, scantily clad and smeared with fake blood. Later, during her first professional shoot, she is ordered to strip naked, and to endure being smeared with gold paint by the photographer's own hand. Another model boasts about the routine cosmetic surgery she undergoes to maintain the object that is her body. In the eyes of the industry, Jesse as an 'object' is already perfect.

Elle Fanning in The Neon DemonAt the same time, the implied male gaze is considerably tempered by the knowledge that the film's screenwriters, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, and its cinematographer, Natasha Braier, are women.

 

"Jesse claims beauty is the only talent she has. That she has decided this at such a young age is an indictment of any number of western institutions that perpetuate the myth that a woman is not worth more than her body."

 

Braier's highly stylised and carefully composed camerawork in particular is responsible for teasing out the subtexts — the juxtapositions of sex and death, of narcissism and objectification — that increasingly become simply 'the text' in the course of Refn's ruminations.

Of course women, too, are perfectly capable of exploiting other women. The female head of a modelling agency (Hendricks) instructs Jesse to lie about her age; to say she is 19 instead of 16. Yet for Jesse's part, she claims beauty is the only talent she has. That she has decided this at such a young age is itself an indictment — of society, of the media, of any number of western institutions that perpetuate the myth that a woman is not worth more than her body.

By extension this gives us sympathy towards the main antagonists of the piece, Jesse's fellow model frenemies (Lee and Kershaw), who resent the fresh-faced sensation Jesse who by her very presence is threatening to usurp them. Their ringleader, makeup artist Ruby (Malone), is so unsettled by Jesse's unattainable beauty she becomes the subject of the film's most appalling indignity, in the most provocative (and hardest to defend) of a number of very provocative scenes.

In a spoiler-filled think piece over at Screen Rant, Bob Chipman argues that The Neon Demon subverts audience expectations, by appearing to exploit horror conventions in the service of commentary, then appearing to simply embrace them for their own sake. Indeed in the perplexing final act the film largely abandons subtext and subtly in favour of literal gore and brutality. The extent to which Refn is provoking thought, or just provoking, remains an open question.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn, Elle Fanning, Jena Malone

 

 

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