The Neon Demoni, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is a divisive movie that is brilliantly photographed. Either it’s a daring, bombastic, sensationalistic, and self-indulgent work of suspense or it’s shallow, pretentious, and self-indulgent. Although I’m still not sure if I liked it or not, it has undoubtedly stuck with me since I watched the movie over the weekend. My response is average considering how the reviewers and cinema buffs have reacted to the film.
I thought I’d share some of the insights of The Neon Demonending, the symbolism and metaphors both evident and more hidden, after watching the movie, which spurred a thorough dive into interviews and analysis. I’ll also try to respond to some of your queries on The Neon Demon.
There are movie spoilers here.
The Beginning Of The End
The movie begins with Jesse (Elle Fanning) dead on the ground in a blue dress covered in blood. Alternatively, as Refnhas put it, “Elle Fanning is bloodied and laying on the couch. Death and splendour. Snow White recently passed away.” A little while later, we understand that Jesse is alive and that the scene was staged for a fashion photo session. This vision served as the basis for the remainder of the movie. Refn said as reported by EW:
“Every time I was at a creative crossroad, I would go back to the opening image and say, ‘Why is it that this came to me so specifically? There’s something very similar, in a strange way, between beauty and death because the obsession of it, the longevity of it, and the youth of it can only mean that it will die, so what is one willing to do?
Setting the tone for the entire movie is another goal of this opening scene. Is this the truth, or is it another thing? While seeing his movie, Refn wants the audience to keep asking themselves this query. The Neon Demon’s concluding act provides an explanation, though it may not be what everyone wanted or expected. In light of this, Refn stated that he believed the final sequence to be the focus of the entire film:
“That’s where it kind of reveals itself, so everything goes back to the beginning, but it’s not revealed until the last few minutes.”
What Do The Characters Represent?
Jena Malone, who plays makeup artist Ruby, and her two model pals Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah are the first three women Jesse encounters in the movie (Abbey Lee). The women each stand for a distinctive facet of beauty. Refn clarifies this in an interview with Slant, saying:
You have to look at the three women: You have Abbey Lee, who’s external beauty, Bella Heathcoate is a woman who tries to recreate beauty artificially, and then you have Jena Malone who’s all about inner beauty, virginity, and innocence. Beauty is one of the most complex subjects we have within this world, because you have to look within yourself.
What about the other individuals in this narrative? According to Refn’s explanation to HollywoodChicago, each of them serves a symbolic purpose in this narrative:
Jesse begins as the classic ‘A Star is Born’ character, coming to the big city…it’s almost a sub genre. … The photographer becomes a portal between aesthetics and obsession. The boyfriend is normalcy, but he is hypocritical. And then there is the Keanu Reeves character, who comes off as a sexual predator. All those characters are part of the Jesse DNA. They each point in different directions from her.
It’s fascinating that the boyfriend, who is supposed to stand for normalcy and is essentially the nice man trying to warn her of the route she is taking, is also an adult who is alright with dating a 16-year-old. If the film hadn’t made this obvious to us, it might appear less bizarre. In a later scene of the movie, Reeves’ portrayal of the hotel manager warns him about ladies like Jesse and advises him to instead focus on a younger Lolita-type girl who is staying in one of the rooms nearby. What this is trying to signify is unclear to me.
The movie doesn’t have a lot of male characters. Along with Keanu and Dean, played by Karl Glusman, the sleazy fashion photographer is also there and is played by Desmond Harrington. Men “have no place in the movie,” according to Refn, which is why they make such minor appearances. The director stated to Fastcocreate:
The male characters were like the girlfriends of other films. They’re plot devices. They’re there to tell a certain part of the story mechanically. In the end, the film is all about women,” Refn says, pointing out that the guys disappear about halfway through the movie. “They were no longer needed in the film, so I took them out.”
However, I’m not sure whether the screenplay “girlfriends of other films” isn’t horrible.
The Mountain Lion In Jesse’s Room
Although it seems strange that a mountain lion would break into a second-floor hotel room, Pasadena does issue a warning that the area is frequently visited by these raptors. The Neon Demoni’s imagery is frequently overt and in your face. I believe that Refn is preparing audiences for what is to come by showing them the strange image of the mountain lion destroying the hotel room.
Hank, played by Keanu Reeves, does not immediately go to Jesse’s defence after the mountain lion is revealed to be in his room. He accuses her of having left the patio door open instead. Is the mountain lion a metaphor for how Jesse let monsters into her life by leaving the door open?
The Meaning Of The Colors
Refn collaborated with the film’s cinematographer, Natasha Braiert, to employ red and blue in particular. The director is colorblind, thus he specifically chose those two hues. In a piece she penned for The Guardian, Braier described the significance of the colours:
I set a base of colours to represent specific emotions. Red meant danger and was in every scene with Jena Malone’s Ruby. We planned this well in advance. At times plans would change though; Nic would say: “It’s dark, but why don’t you go darker?” That’s a sensibility that Nic and I share; the last thing we want to do is to play it safe. … The blue had a lot to do with the Greek myth Narcissus, and to reflect Elle Fanning’s climactic narcissistic moment, so we did an abstract representation of going to the pond and looking at her reflection in the triangle. That’s when she’s going to transform into red and go from the Alice In Wonderland girl to the empowered beauty queen. It’s very subtle; it’s done with just light and mirrors. If we’d had another $5 million it could have been underwater but we had to do it with no money, so it was a minimalist realisation of the Narcissus story.
Regarding the triangle, James Turrell’s artwork served as its inspiration.
“He’s a sculptor of light, but an architect too. His works become, for me, sacred spaces. That reference gave the triangle in The Neon Demon a subliminal touch of the spiritual as well.”
Jesse fully embraces her narcissism in her first runway show, which features a strange performance that includes Jesse kissing images of herself. Refn has justified the usage of narcissism and vanity in his movie. The Village Voice is quoted as follows:
Neon Demon is about beauty, which is written off by many people as being superficial. But generally people have a very complicated relationship to beauty, because it’s really about themselves your own vanity, how you see yourself, narcissism. Elle [Fanning] and I wanted to make a horror film for a teenage audience about a theme that for them is much more advanced than what we’re used to. You and I were brought up to think of narcissism as a taboo, something negative. My kids’ generation, Elle’s generation, sees it as a virtue. That is so fascinating, and complex. The meaning is so clear, but how crazy is it that this is the way that it’s moved?
This reasoning appears to be aimed mainly at explaining why critics in their twenties or older middle-aged audiences disliked the film.
The Keanu Reeves Deep Throat Knife-mare
Later on in the movie, Hank, played by Keanu Reeves, is seen breaking into Jesse’s hotel room and slitting her throat with a large knife. The dream or nightmare is unquestionably real, but what does it mean? According to Refn, “the movie touches upon Jesse’s fear of penetration, and that’s what she imagines,” during the knife deep-throat nightmare.
“That’s her nightmare about the predatorial aspect of the film, because beauty is not about just what you look like, it’s also what other people want from the inside youth, perfection, purity, and virginity.”
The next scene depicts a man attempting to enter her motel room. Although that room number is supposed to be two rooms adjacent, the man breaks into the hotel room next door (perhaps the Lolita that Hank mentioned previously) as Jesse leans up against the door to prevent that from happening. Jesse calls Jena Malone’s character Ruby in an effort to run away after hearing the bloodshed that occurs through the wall.
Could it be that this is also a nightmare? Through this adventure, Jesse has developed a little more narcissism, which may have started to develop into paranoia. And why did Ruby make the police call, not Jesse?
The Necrophilia Scene
Ruby, a character played by Jena Malone, has a sexual encounter with a deceased woman at the mortuary after being rejected by Jesse. It was originally intended for this scenario to be very different. Ruby was supposed to kiss the dead body, which was portrayed by model Cody Renee Cameron, in the original script. Refn described how it changed to the Telegraph:
“Jena kissed the body and I just said instinctively, ‘Can you spit in her mouth?’?” So Jena spat in her mouth. And then I go, ‘OK, can you touch her…’ Jenna kissed the body and I just said instinctively, ‘Can you spit in her mouth?’ And after we cut, I was like, ‘We found the character.’ It became this very fragile, melancholy scene,” Refn goes on, while peeling a hard-boiled egg. (His breakfast comprises three of them, yolks removed and discarded, plus two double espressos and two glasses of water, one still, one sparkling.) “It was grotesque, but there was also something very sad about it. And after we cut, I was like, ‘We found the character.’?”
This sequence was filmed early in the shoot because they wouldn’t be able to return to the area, even though the film was shot chronologically, allowing Refn to adapt and rearrange the path as he chose. Refn claims that during filming this scene, he made his last discovery of the antagonist of the tale.
The End Of The Story
When I first saw this movie, I wanted to think that the finale held something more intriguing, but as I come to the end of my deep dig, it seems like the movie’s ending is mostly literal. In a not-so-subtle illustration of how a town like Los Angeles and the fashion business can obliterate an innocent, charming girl, Jesse is actually consumed by Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah towards the conclusion of the story. When she is devoured, “three things happen,” according to Refn:
- “Jena Malone‘s character, who initiates this whole ceremony of beauty, menstruates again, has something flowing through her.”
- “Bella Heathcote, who wants to manufacture her own beauty, dies because that’s the one thing that you can’t do.”
- “And then there’s Abbey Lee, the supermodel, who felt like a ghost, but finds everything within her again, by eating the thing that Jesse is.”
As was already mentioned, the first scene of the movie had an impact on the final one. Jesse’s eye is the first and final thing we see, according to Refn.
“In Neon Demon, I knew that Jesse had to be devoured at the end. I wanted the eye to be what brings it all full circle.”
The opening shot/last shot pattern has been used in movies before without a doubt.
Why Was The Film Dedicated To Liv?
An ode to Liv appears at the end of the movie. Although this information is unrelated to the narrative itself, I decided to include it nevertheless because I suspected that others might be curious about Liv. And why is this movie named after her?
Liv is Refn’s wife and a Danish actress and documentary filmmaker. She served as the inspiration for the film, which is why the director dedicated it to her.
She was the idea behind the film. Two years ago, I woke up depressed one morning. I wasn’t born beautiful, but my wife was. And I thought, “I wonder what it’d be like to have been born beautiful.” And of course, there’s a sixteen-year-old girl in every man. This is a way to do my version of her. It made sense going from Drive, which was the height of masculinity, and my own fetishization of a hero, and even Only God Forgives, where Ryan’s character is my own male obsession deconstructing itself and emasculating itself, trying to crawl back into the womb of the mother. And now, I am reborn as a sixteen-year old girl. In the end, beauty was what I was making a film about, and the only person I knew around me who was beautiful was my wife.
There you have it, then. I’m hoping that our in-depth examination of The Neon Demon has clarified some points or provided some of your burning questions with solid answers.