(Spoiler warning: This article discusses The Neon Demon in its entirety.)
Late in The Neon Demon, a snooty fashion designer named Robert declares, “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Nicolas Winding Refn apparently agrees: no one would deny that the ten feature films that he’s made to date are exceedingly beautiful. Indeed, some have already fingered Robert as a stand-in for the director. But that’s incorrect, and you realize it the moment you examine Robert’s other declarations. Trying to make his point, he asks a model, Gigi, to stand, so he can dismiss her as being nothing more than “just fine.” Gigi, of course, is a devotee of plastic surgery; nicknamed by her doctor “the bionic woman.” Her foil, according to Robert, is Jesse, about whom there’s “nothing fake, nothing false. She’s like a diamond in a sea of glass.”
That sets up a very simple contrast: fake vs. real, artifice vs. nature. Fake and artifice are bad (glass), while real and nature are good (diamonds). But it should be obvious to anyone paying attention that Jesse is hardly a paean to the real. In the single month that she’s spent in LA, she’s proven a quick study, embodying her agent’s advice that “people believe what they are told”—for instance, that she’s nineteen, instead of sixteen. (Robert swallowed that lie, in their first encounter.) She’s also forged a parent’s signature on a consent form.
Jesse is pretty, no doubt about it. But her beauty isn’t natural—or it isn’t entirely natural. In this regard, she’s exactly like the film, which tries to teach its viewers how to read it right in its opening shots. We first see Jesse in a blue dress on a sofa, heavily made-up. Her eyes are wide open and her throat appears to have been cut; blood has poured down her arm to pool on the floor. We then cut to a reverse shot, of a young man in close-up; his head is down, his mouth hanging open. He looks predatory, and our immediate suspicion is that he is the murderer. But no—he’s photographing Jesse, who isn’t dead, but merely posing. It’s all a fake. The message is clear: pay attention, because this film will lie to you.
So how to explain why Robert takes such a shine to Jesse? What has the ingénue got that Gigi hasn’t? Is it just that she’s new—“fresh meat”? No. We must consider the way that Gigi behaves. From the moment she shows up, she’s fiercely, casually mean. “Ruby says that your parents are dead,” she tells Jesse, faux-concerned. “That must be so tough.” And later, when Ruby brings Jesse’s name up at a diner, Gigi asks, “Who?” But it’s obvious that she’s once again pretending; she knows exactly who Jesse is. Gigi’s problem is that her act is always too obvious, too transparent. She’s not all that tough—a bionic woman in nickname only. Even more damningly, she’s a bad actress. (Note that the actress playing her, Bella Heathcote, isn’t terrible at all—she’s marvelous, giving an entirely convincing performance.)
Jesse, by way of contrast, always comes across as the real thing. As Ruby puts it early on, she’s got that “deer in headlights look.” She spends the first half of the film looking overwhelmed, in way over her head, sweet and innocent and lost. But here’s the thing: is that what Jesse really is? Or is she instead providing exactly what others want? There’s no way to tell, and that’s the point. Whether she’s acting or sincere, Jesse comes across as genuine—and in this version of beauty (Refn’s version), it’s what comes across that matters.
In the world of The Neon Demon, it’s wrong to think of beauty as being wholly artificial or wholly natural, because it’s wrong to think of beauty as something one is. Instead, it’s something a person does, and does either better or worse than others. Robert thinks Jesse better than Gigi because he finds Jesse more convincing. Jesse trumps Gigi, and rises to stardom, by outperforming her. Indeed, she’s so good at what she does, she fools everyone around her, making them think she’s not even trying—she’s just being. That’s what allows her to ascend, and it’s also what brings her crashing down—shoved backward into an empty swimming pool. Jesse proves so convincing that her rivals come to think of her as something purely natural—an animal, free of pretense. And if that’s the case, then the way to become like Jesse isn’t to act like her, but to consume her, and remake their bodies out of hers.
You are what you eat. Ruby and Gigi and Sarah, meeting in the diner, order three cups of coffee and a single cup of fruit—rather than the loaded baked potato that’s on special—because they want to keep their figures. Toward the end of the film, another model, Annie, tells a story about her friend, who’s turned twenty-one and is therefore unable to find work. She needs to retire, Annie says, but her girlfriend won’t listen: “She’s so desperate, she went out of town, trying to buy this baby seal fat.”
Age is just a natural fact, a record of how long you’ve been alive. (As They Might Be Giants sang, “You’re older than you’ve ever been / and now you’re even older.”) What Annie’s friend believes is that baby seal fat will make her seem younger than she is—that it possesses rejuvenating qualities that will make her look under twenty-one. As it happens, Ruby and Gigi and Sarah have their own baby seal fat—Jesse. They kill her and eat her and bathe in her blood in the hope that whatever Jesse has—her “deer in headlights look,” her je ne sais quoi—will become a part of them. Which is to say, they call Jesse’s bluff, betting it all on the belief that she’s not acting, the way that baby seals aren’t acting. (They’re just really baby seals.)
If that’s all there were to The Neon Demon, then it might be a cautionary tale: “Don’t believe the hype!” But there’s more going on beneath the surface, and it’s easy to miss on a single viewing. Early on in the film, Ruby invites Jesse to a party, where she (and we) first meet Gigi and Sarah. In the bathroom, Ruby describes how lipstick is marketed to women by association with either food or sex. Of course it’s neither—it’s lipstick—and the point of the lipstick’s name is to help sell a thing that people don’t really need (makeup) by associating it with something else, something that satisfies natural urges (eating, screwing). That much is Marketing 101. Ruby then asks Jesse which one she is: food or sex? She’s asking of course whether food or sex appeals more to Jesse—makes her more want to buy the lipstick. But Ruby is also playing a game. Presumably, she’s already decided that Jesse will be one or the other—food or sex. And that’s why when Jesse resists her advances, she has to die. (Rebuffed, Ruby gets the sex via artifice: by pretending a corpse is Jesse.)
If any character in the movie’s a stand-in for Refn, it is Ruby. The opening shot, as previously noted, is of Jesse “dead” on a couch. Ruby’s the one who applied the fake blood; she’s also the one who washes it off. She’s truly an expert at artifice: she could make living Jesse look dead, and she can make the dead look living, during her day job at a mausoleum, preparing corpses for viewings.
So Jesse beats Gigi because she’s better at performance. But Ruby beats Jesse because she’s the best. (Rubies trump diamonds, in this movie’s economy.) When Jesse feels threatened, she calls up Ruby, asking for help, believing the smiling woman her friend. No doubt the audience falls for it, too, the first time through. From the moment that we meet Ruby, she’s all smiles and promises of sisterly protection: “It’s good to have good girls around,” she says. The truth of the line, unnoticed at first, is that it’s what the fox says to a chicken. Ruby is secretly Jesse’s nemesis, plotting against her from the beginning. Almost everything she tells Jesse is a lie disguised as truth, designed to lure her into her trap. Jesse walks straight into it, never suspecting a thing, which is why she winds up inside three different digestive tracts.
This raises the question: what is Ruby? Toward the end of the film, there are hints that she’s not human, but supernatural—a witch, or maybe even a vampire. Could it be that Gigi and Sarah are her thralls? Might it have been Ruby who broke into Jesse’s motel room, in the form of a mountain lion? She claims that the manor where she lives is not her home, that she’s simply house-sitting—but why believe her? The place could be hers, as well as the older art it contains—she could be centuries old, akin to Adam and Eve in Jim Jarmusch’s recent vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive.
Or is this vampire stuff all an act, merely a fantasy—like when she fantasizes the corpse she fucks is Jesse? The part of the fashion world she inhabits, characterized by a love of dark wave techno and all things morbid, is a fantasy of the occult. Either way—genuine vampire or make-believe—Ruby blends right in. And either way, the film remains coy—deliberately so. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter; artifice works. (“People believe what they are told.”) Ruby could be an actual demon, or she could be merely pretending—someone who fancies herself a modern Countess Báthory, who live action role-plays at bathing in the blood of virgins (minus the role-play). In her final shots, we see Ruby lounging in a grave she’s dug, where she no doubt plans to inter what little remains of Jesse. She’s surrounded by rose bushes, and we have to wonder if they don’t mark the graves of other young women that Ruby has similarly seduced, perhaps with the help of different models.
Ambiguity is the endgame. Hence the climax, which follows Sarah and Gigi up the coast for a gig. The ending completes their character arcs, which depict how they trade places. Gigi spends the film acting strong, but her mask keeps slipping. Jesse unnerves her, makes her act less and less convincing. It’s all she can do to keep from crying when Robert insults her. By the final scenes, she can no longer hide how terrified she’s become, her lips trembling as Sarah all but boasts about eating Jesse. When she’s posed near the pool for the photo shoot, she must feel totally transparent—that all eyes can see Jesse’s eyeball swirling around inside her. Retching, she rushes off to throw up the telltale orb. Desperate to undo what she’s done, to get Jesse out of her, she slashes her abdomen open with a pair of scissors.
Sarah, meanwhile, has become the bionic woman. In her earlier scenes, she was bitter and openly crying. Now she’s confident and cool—and in demand again, from Jack. When Gigi vomits up the eyeball, Sarah picks it up, swallows it whole. Whether or not she’s been rejuvenated is, again, unimportant: she believes that she has been, and so she behaves accordingly. Beauty’s not something you are, but something you do.
Now, I’ve seen some dismiss this film as a feeble critique of the fashion industry, and as mere “style over substance,” being an unrealistic tale with paper-thin characters and dialogue that’s dumb. Refn’s just masturbating, leering at models without concern for them or anyone else—i.e., he’s a misanthropic Dane. Those complaints miss the point. The Neon Demon is a critique, but it’s a critique of those who think of beauty only in terms of the natural and the authentic—people like Robert, who privilege being over doing. Which is to say, the film’s a critique of a great many people, from a great many walks of life—because we happen to live in an age that’s obsessed with being, where how you were born matters more than what you go on to do, or what you believe. Robert declares that a person’s born beautiful or they are not, but he could have chosen any other natural feature over which no one has any control—ethnicity, skin color, sexual orientation, gender. “Beauty is the greatest currency we have,” Robert continues, and the logic of his argument is that any identity is currency, albeit of greater or lesser value. And Robert, unfortunately, is right—at present, those currencies have values because we believe that they have values, and behave accordingly. (This is why Jesse can declare, “I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.”) Refn, whose notion of beauty is something else entirely (something that’s done), obviously disagrees with Robert—and this is what gives his movie its edge, its own je ne sais quoi.
For the record, Refn is right: putting identity first won’t give you a great work of art. It will only give you the memoir. To have great art, you need more than nature. You need great artifice. You need The Neon Demon.
(Thanks, as always, to Justin Roman for discussing the film with me at length, and helping me clarify my thoughts. Thanks also to my professors Walter Benn Michaels and Jennifer Ashton, whose work’s influence on my argument is obvious.)