“Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?”. This line bitterly spat out by jealous model Sarah encapsulates The Neon Demon’s (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) mantra. In a world where youth equals beauty, The Neon Demon exposes the ugly side of the fashion industry. 16 year old Jesse, moves to Los Angeles with the hopes of becoming a model. As she works her way into the industry, her innocent ‘small town’ sensibility and naivety is tested, as she comes against jealous fellow models, letchy photographers, and creepy motel owners.
Jesse is the epitome of natural beauty, with clear skin, golden locks and doe eyes, light emanates from the girl- literally, in the scene when she leans against a wall listening to the cries of another woman being attacked in a motel room down the way. In an abstract view from the other side of the wall, we see a silhouette of Jesse with a dome of light around her head, looking like a biblical figure. When Jesse walks into a room, people take notice. It isn’t only her natural beauty that defines her however, it is her youth. As a virgin she is seen as pure, untainted and therefore alluring. When Jesse meets models Sarah and Gigi at a party she attends with make-up artist friend Ruby, the first thing they want to know is who she is sleeping with. Immediately threatened by Jesse’s youth, the models wish for her to be tainted by sex, hoping she isn’t the image of virginal perfection that they can no longer attain. Another instance of this happens towards the end of the film. Ruby discovers that Jesse is in fact a virgin, and she immediately wants to take that from her. “I want to be your first” she exclaims as she forces herself upon Jesse, obsessed with removing the purity that everybody in this film wishes to attain in one way or another.
Images of blood frequent the film, alluding to menstruation, threatening the desirable prepubescent youth that Jesse represents. The first shot of the film shows Jesse sprawled on a chaise lounge, throat slashed with blood everywhere, posing for a photoshoot. As she cleans the blood off her body after the shoot, the shot is reminiscent of Carrie (1976), drenched in blood before her schoolmates at the prom. Carrie is again very directly referenced towards the end of the film after the notorious cannibalistic scene. Models Sarah and Gigi are covered in blood, and shower together sensually to clean it off. The image of blood running down the girls’ legs as they shower is just like the opening scene of De Palma’s classic horror movie. References like this place The Neon Demon firmly in horror territory. Carrie’s powers only come in to play after she begins menstruating, her mother regarding this natural occurrence as the work of the devil. Perhaps this link to Carrie is to further cement this fear of ageing, even past puberty.
There are many predators in Jesse’s life that wish to either possess, or take away, her youth and innocence. In fact the only character to shy away from youth is Jesse’s photographer friend Dean, who softens his advances after learning the girls’ age. The other three men in the film yearn for Jesse’s purity for their own personal gain. Photographer Jack is introduced to Jesse on a closed shoot. He very sternly and threateningly instructs the girl to remove her clothes, leaving her exposed and vulnerable to his intent. Like a predator Jack immediately goes for the jugular as he smears gold paint over her neck and chest. Here Jack wants to own Jesse’s youth for his art, and also for his own sexual gain.
Another man who desires Jesse’s youth is fashion designer Charles Baker. At an audition for his runway show, both Jesse and Sarah walk for him. As Sarah walks the designer doesn’t even glance up at her, completely uninterested in the twenty-something model. However, as Jesse walks, he is entranced, his eyes crinkle as a slight smile forms across his face. Taken by her natural beauty, Charles most likely hopes that the audience will be equally bewitched by her as she walks his creations down the runway.
The third man to pose a threat to Jesse’s youth is the hostile motel owner Hank. Jesse goes to him for help when she comes home to find a wild cat has broken into her room. The predatory cat in her bed symbolises the threat that the majority of people in Jesse’s life pose her. We know that Hank has an inclination towards young girls, earlier in the film describing a 13 year old runaway staying in his motel as “real Lolita shit”, so Jesse definitely has a lot to fear from this man. The character however, doesn’t appear to be a threat until she invites him into her room, almost like a vampire. After he has been invited, we see a very disturbing scene where Hank enters Jesse’s room while she is sleeping and forces a knife into her mouth to wake her with a start.
Even Ruby, the initially friendly make-up artist, poses a threat to Jesse, and ultimately the biggest one. Ruby seems to worship the ground Jesse walks on, her face lighting up when she sees the girl, real love in her eyes. Ruby shows Jesse the ropes, introduces her to other models, and poses as someone who Jesse can trust. However Ruby becomes possessive, and obsessed with owning the natural beauty and purity that Jesse represents. When Jesse rejects Ruby’s sexual advances towards the end of the film, she quickly turns from friend to foe. If Ruby can’t have Jesse than nobody can. Taking her rage and sexual urges out on the corpse of a young woman at the mortuary she works at, it becomes clear that Ruby is a twisted individual, with few morals. At this point Jesse is taking refuge at Ruby’s house. The grand mansion is filled with taxidermy predators such as a Jaguar and a wolf. Jesse is not safe here, there are predators around every corner, hungry to feed on her youth. Ruby returns to the mansion, along with Gigi and Sarah, proceeding to terrorise Jesse resulting in her death.
After killing Jesse, the three girls consume her, craving her youth and purity so much, desperate to have it inside of them. It also eradicates Jesse and what she represents, so that she cannot haunt the girls, and get in the way of their careers any longer. However the killing of Jesse at her prime, ensures that she will be eternally remembered as youthful. The girls didn’t rob Jesse of her youth, they gave her the gift of never ageing. It is for this reason that Jesse continues to plague the girls after her death. Sarah is overcome with the horror of what she has done, as the remains of Jesse writhe inside of her. She vomits up a vivid blue eye, and kills herself with a pair of scissors as Gigi unflinchingly looks on. Jesse is forever watching the girls now, and will always be a part of them.
The yearning for youth and fear of ageing is a trait nearly every character in The Neon Demon possesses. The models feared ageing as it signified a deterioration of their looks, an irrelevance in the industry, and ultimately the end of their careers. The men in the film didn’t fear ageing in this way, but they also didn’t desire it, as the aged woman did not fulfil their needs as a young woman did. Jesse’s spark would have eventually faded, as she became tainted by the industry and inevitably grew older, but Ruby, Sarah and Gigi couldn’t wait for this to happen. Their obsession with eradicating the threat that they saw in Jesse’s vitality became all-consuming for the girls, and taken to the extreme, their desperation resulted in murder and cannibalism. The Neon Demon shows us the horrific conclusion that a damaging lust for youth in the fashion industry can result in.
by Emily Gett
Emily is a film researcher currently completing her masters on the representation of Asian culture in Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049.When not studying or in the cinema she can be found at home binge watching 90s TV such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Friends and Twin Peaks. She also enjoys costume making and gaming at home with her boyfriend. Her favourite films include Ratatouille, Goodfellas, Chungking Express and Lady Bird. You can follow her on Instagram at @boba.gett and on Twitter at @95bobagett.
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