I was never especially taken with Drive (2011). Though Drive is a good film, behind the stylistic Refn flourishes was a fairly conventional masculine revenge narrative. Yet The Neon Demon has a distinctive voice. Of course, there’s still neon and synth, and in some ways, it’s a story that has been told a million times.
There are elements of the coming of age story – feeling comfortable with one’s self, sexuality turned into competition, rejecting people who were once everything (like her friend Dean, or the fact Jesse’s motel life cuts her off from her parents’ memory.) The story is basically Mean Girls (2004) – a young, teenage girl is pressured to be something she isn’t, resulting in jealousy and catfights.
But the film is far more than this – more metaphorical, magical, stylistic – that it starts to resemble a music video. A cougar can walk through a motel room, but we don’t question the logistics of its zoo escape. Ruby can look after a massive, extravagant house that could easily be a stage for a music video, yet we don’t question who she knows, or who could ever afford it. Rooms shift from red to blue lighting – this is the reality the film lives in. Triangular symbols appear, flashing on screen like the recurring symbol of an artist’s new album; the stage is an unreality of strobe lights. Even the film’s closing credits resemble a music video: mixing overhead shots of beaches, as we see the back of a woman walking in the desert, the song plays on whilst liquid colour envelopes each naked model. It never breaks this ‘reality’ into scrolling credits or funny outtakes.
Refn tries to find space in the divide between high and low culture, whether these distinctions matter at all. Many of the film’s concepts are ostensibly ludicrous, straight out of the worst of the ‘video nasties’, banned by the BBFC until the next century – cannibalism, blood showers, necrophilia, rampant lesbianism, Brian De Palma-esque phallic knifes – yet Refn ties these lowbrow concepts with a complex study of the human condition and a woman’s place in the modelling industry.
But the film is also Refn’s love letter to his wife, Liv; during the closing credits, he dedicates the film to her. In interviews, Ref has said the film’s concept came from when he realised he “wasn’t born beautiful and my wife was.” The film is speculation – alongside his female cowriters, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, Refn is trying to understand the pressures young women face, and in particular, the pressure his wife faces. This is what the best of both filmmaking and film viewing should try to do – challenge viewpoints.
In another way, the modelling industry becomes a stand-in for every other industry. Refn knows the struggles of the filmmaking industry firsthand, and the difficulty financing Pusher (1996) and its sequels; as has his wife, who acted in some of his films. Keanu Reeves’ role as Hank, asking his underage actresses to strip naked (one of the few male characters in the film, along with Dean and the motel owner), could easily be a stand-in for Refn’s power as a director. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, the industry eats you alive. Women become identical bodies, chosen on the slightest of differences – like the process of auditioning actresses. Note that Jesse’s success comes from her trying to go against the presupposed assumption of finding artificial beauty in plastic surgery to meet the industry’s standard. Yet her desire to fit in becomes her downfall, an auteur consumed by the mainstream.
Even the most trustworthy characters can’t be trusted. Hank doesn’t seem trustworthy, but Ruby positions herself as a friend to Jesse, until she destroys that trust by almost raping her. Trust has dissipated into allegations of mistreatment and sexual abuse.
The film breathes in its silences and stillness. Drive also used silence a lot, but it feels even more appropriate here. Filmmaking is about silence – waiting around on set until called; seeing a performance repeated for the 20th time without falling asleep. Women stand still as if they are only one angle, aiming to be beautiful and photogenic – yet beauty in the camera is different to beauty in reality, as is beauty on Photoshop. In the establishing shot of the studio, it is not only the women who are still – it is also the photographer and the editor, touching up an image of a woman in tandem to it being taken, living within the monotony of moving the mouse around the screen.
The farcical idea that women are held to this same pressure to beauty in death is just as real. When Ruby applies make-up to corpses, this is exactly how we treat the dead – making them look pretty so a family can see their loved one how they remember them. We continue to hold up women who tragically died young as sex symbols, like Marilyn Monroe: picturing them in their beauty – not when they were at their lowest.
But these are also universal themes. I never felt pressures as bad as women, or particularly models, feel it – but my high school years were filled with anxiety over how I dressed, my hair, my attractiveness; unrealistic aims of the perfect boyfriend and lots of sex. I don’t feel it quite as badly now – but these anxieties haven’t gone away completely.