In director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, everything is as it seems. A highly stylized dive into the corrupt world of high fashion modeling, the film is a natural fit for symbolism. The lush visual imagery is the most important facet of the film, with the plot coming in a distant second. It is one of the beautiful films that emphasize form over function. That being said, the film’s deliberate and careful themes coexist with the visual storytelling rather than fighting against it. Certain themes in the film are direct reflections of the pretty images dancing on screen. Notably, the interconnection of two of these themes, innocence and superficiality, is one of the more pervasive voices throughout The Neon Demon.
The film is loosely arranged around a young girl trying to make it in California. Jesse (Elle Fanning) has just moved to Los Angeles to try her looks at a modeling career. She is statuesque and drop-dead gorgeous, and those around her can always sense a certain “it” factor oozing from her. When she is befriended by a makeup artist and a pair of models, Jesse’s submersion into the darker side of beauty and competition begins to drown her.
The manner that Refn frames Jesse, both thematically and within the physical frame of the film highlights his insistence on her balance between innocence and corruption.
Physically, she is angelic. Tall. Pale. Blonde. Always with a perfect pout on her lips. Though she is lanky enough to tower over most of the other people she encounters, she is often sitting, so that she can be shown looking up toward other characters. This forced articulation makes her often look like a child, gazing up at a parent. She is soft spoken and unsure of herself. In stark contrast we have Ruby (Jena Malone), the makeup artist. She wears dark and stylish clothing, vampy lipstick, with a coy smile. Ruby seems to dance around answering direct questions, hinting of the fact that she knows far more about nearly everything than Jesse does.
Jesse repeatedly insists throughout the film that she is not nearly as innocent as she appears to be. Given that she looks as innocent as a recently baptized baby, her assertion is weighty and pulls from multiple levels of assumption. First, Jesse must understand how innocent she looks, but not only that; she must understand how innocent the other person assumes she must be. This necessitates her understanding of her projected perfection to the other person. Next, she must believe that she is more corrupt, even slightly, than the expectations of the person she is talking to. She must, on some level, understand how innocent she looks, but her repeated claim of corruption is ultimately unfounded. Jesse is in fact exactly as innocent as she appears and has no deep down inner demons.
In other words, she is ruled by superficiality. Beauty is superficial and fleeting, and Jesse is both. Refn has created a world where everything is exactly as it seems. Given human nature’s inclination to overly complicate simple scenarios, this simplistic world within The Neon Demon is unnerving. The creepy innkeeper (Keanu Reeves) who runs the motel where Jesse lives is in fact just as threatening as he appears to be. The two type-A, frenemy models who hang out with Jesse and are wholly threatened by her beauty (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) are just as conniving as we expect them to be. Even the mountain lion that somehow breaks into Jesse’s room one night turns out to be a literal big cat, just hanging out in a seedy motel.
This is not to say that The Neon Demon does not lend itself to analysis beneath the surface. The richness of the film naturally lends itself to examination. The deliberate intention and attention to detail that is pervasive throughout the film makes for a celebration of wild speculation and film analysis. The film is dense and offers plenty to pick apart and reassemble. However, when taking on a symbolic or thematic assessment of The Neon Demon, it begs the question if we are over complicating the film, just as Jesse over complicates herself. Jesse is just as innocent as she looks, which means perhaps The Neon Demon is just as simple as it appears too.
Both Jesse and The Neon Demon can be truthfully described as superficial. With both of them you can enjoy digging and searching for deeper meanings, but be aware that any drawn conclusions may just be your own projections onto the film or onto Jesse, rather than assessments of them as they are. This assertion of pure innocence intersecting superficiality may be Refn’s own comment on Hollywood’s notorious shallowness. Or maybe, my assumption of Refn’s ulterior motive is just more unwarranted digging for meaning in a shallow film.