The Neon Demon (2016): Do not hate the players, hate the game? (SPOILERS INCLUDED)

I have been meaning to write about The Neon Demon (2016 ) by Nicolas Winding Refn since I first saw the movie this summer. I was mesmerized by its visual aspects and it did not feel like I sat through two hours of the movie at all. I have since seen it again and the movie’s charm was not lost on me this time either.

The quality of the movie is not assessed by paying attention only to its visual side, but its story too. I always judge a movie by looking at least at these two criteria and how well they are executed. Some of the articles I have read about The Neon Demon focused on men exploiting women and rape culture. The title of this blog post comes from a well known phrase “do not hate the players, hate the game” but it is followed by a question mark. “The game” can refer to the fashion industry or on a bigger scale to the society itself, a game in which women compete against each other for an approval. Women are born into a world with certain rules and parameters that they initially view to be fixed and unchangeable, maybe even a part of a tradition. They often do not think to question the rules, the game, and wether they want to participate in it or not. Thankfully, other women have now for decades tried to speak out about this issue, although with different outcomes. This willingness to participate and even enjoy the game is portrayed in The Neon Demon and it is a portrayal worth talking about. The models consciously become willing participants in the fashion industry where beauty is the main commodity and thus the models themselves continue to set unreal standards to be met by women and expected by men.

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The Neon Demon‘s story revolves around 16 year old Jesse coming to Los Angeles from a small town to become a model. She quickly grabs the attention of everyone after being signed with a model agency. Ruby, a make up artist, becomes her new friend and introduces Jesse to fellow models Gigi and Sarah. Gigi and Sarah are experienced models who have accommodated to the expectations of the beauty industry. Especially Sarah who proudly displays her body that has been altered by multiple plastic surgeries. Jesse becomes the raising star and her natural beauty is compared to the unnatural beauty of Gigi and mostly Sarah. Everybody around Jess treats her as a naive newcomer, including Dean, a photographer that shoots her first photos in the beginning of the movie (Dean is also romantically interested in Jesse). However, Jesse is less naive than everyone initially estimates and she is fully aware of her beauty and its benefits. Jesse eventually gets murdered by Gigi, Sarah and Ruby.

Jesse, Gigi, Ruby, and Sarah are not stupid and they are fully aware how fashion industry works. Sadly, they do not fight against it but instead choose to compete against each other for the place in the eyes of the photographers and fashion designers. I deliberately did not say a heart, because the male gaze plays a significant role in this movie. Women do not compete for the place in the heart of men; they want to please the human/male eye, and its extension, the camera lens. Nowhere in the movie is it implied that they are interested in participating in the creation of art that is the fashion photography. However, it is not only the male gaze, but the female gaze that can be dangerous, too.

First, I would like to refer to the scene which made me feel very (probably the most) uncomfortable. The scene takes place at a bar after Jesse’s first fashion show. The designer asks Dean to asses Gigi’s beauty to prove a point that fake beauty  (i.e. gained through surgery) can be easily distinguished from natural beauty. Gigi proudly presents herself although she is not happy being compared to Jesse who remains silent and does not oppose the comparison, unlike Dean who finds the entire discussion uncomfortable.

Neither Gigi or Sarah ever decide to quit the industry. On the contrary, they decide to kill Jesse, bathe in her blood, and devour her entire dead body. The very last part of the movie shows Gigi and Sarah participating in a photo shoot. Gigi is unable to stomach what they have done and kills herself in order to get rid off Jesse inside her (well, what she ate of her). Sarah is able to live with what they have done and (re)gains her it girl status.

The movie does not end with a happy ending for Jesse, but what is the ending really? The strongest part of this movie is its power to hypnotize its viewers with stunning visuals and music. The weakness of this movie is its story which concludes without any real conclusion. Or maybe that was the point? That the good does not always win and the show must go on?

I would like to briefly discuss the meaning of “good” from the perspective of this movie. Is Jesse a good person and should the analysis be even concerned with it? Jesse’s character is viewed in comparison to other characters, namely Gigi and Sarah, who are portrayed as fake, competitive, and often say harsh and too honest words to Jesse. Dean initially perceives Jess to be beautiful and talented girl despite her objections (she tells him she possesses no real talent, but is aware that she can make money with her beauty). Knowing Dean’s opinion of Jesse as a person is important as it is him  who points out to her and to the audience how she has changed after her first fashion show. He asks her to leave with him but Jesse refuses. This exchange demonstrates that Jesse feels comfortable in fashion industry and in an environment that treats women so harshly.

Morally and visually the most shocking scene depicts Ruby having sex with a dead body. Ruby has sex with an anonymous female body because Jesse refuses her sexual advances which are very aggressive and Ruby actually comes close to raping Jesse. Ruby thus settles for the next best thing: an inanimate body; and fantasizes about having sex with Jesse. This appears to satisfy her. The scene reminds us again that women also commit crime against each other; as if men’s pressure on them was not already enough, they also need to defend themselves from each other.

I have  a slight issue with motivations of individual women in this movie. Is it enough to say that they want to be adored for their beauty? That they need to feel on top of the world? I wish Refn added a little bit of background information about the individual characters. Sure, not knowing adds a certain mystery, but it also makes them too one note for me. Furthermore, it would be nice to see the female characters unite and rewrite the rules of the game.

It might seem as something that would not be a reflection of the real world fashion industry but that is not true. Body positivity and criticism of women bringing down other women in order to feel better about themselves has become more common in recent years. I believe it would have added another dimension to the movie, but on the other hand, Refn probably was not interested in spreading feminist message but in offering a story in which hate is being rewarded.

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