WARNING: Spoilers ahead, so proceed at your own risk.
It’s kind of amazing how different my take was on my second viewing of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. In fact, I’m sure I love the film more now than I did before, and that was something that (having already fallen for it) didn’t seem possible. Whereas my virginal viewing found the dialogue and the performances enjoyably campy, with dialogue that was about as subtle as a brick and delivered with too much bravura - I was surprised to find the second viewing feel a lot less vivacious. Instead of feeling camp, a line like “I heard your parents are dead” doesn’t get a laugh, anymore - as it feels naturally catty coming from the character when you’re thoroughly aware of the film’s trajectory to its final thirty minutes.
Refn asked his actresses to watch both Valley of the Dolls and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (depending on which source you ask), and that couldn’t be any more clearer. The characters in The Neon Demon are all one-dimensional on the offset, and the story is so conventional beneath all of the style that it’s old enough to predate All About Eve; the film that’s largely known to have perfected it. But what’s admirable about the performances in The Neon Demon is the conviction to each and every character, and the shades that are placed among the often asinine dialogue. Refn’s quite content with it being camp, but the camp is only the surface. It’s a paradox, but Refn works with it. It’s one of those rare style-equals-substance films.
In my first bit of writing on the film, I got caught up in figuring out what Refn’s views of the modeling industry were, and what I think he was trying to say about it. I still stand by the allusions to the objectification of women being in the same cluster as Keanu Reeves’ character’s pimping of underage girls, but I think that’s just a footnote to what Refn is actually interested in here. The film is, in a nutshell, and maybe not all that subtly, about beauty. It’s not a criticism on the industry, but a criticism of the culture in which we’ve created for the conformed definition of female beauty. All the women who are models here have been objectified in such a way, to such a degree, that they objectify themselves and those around them. The one that isn’t a model, Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist for models, is the person who makes that beauty magnified for the pleasure of the industry at large. But how does Ruby really feel about herself; not being a model?
Upon first viewing, I saw Jena Malone’s character as some kind of maternal figure with feelings of support and caution for our protagonist moving up fast in the fashion world. What I’ve come to notice on rewatch - due to my knowing the revelations of Ruby - is that the character is wholly different and more aching this time around (her asking questions now seems like that of a predator, and her actions overall, are obviously fueled by a jealousy). A little less one-dimensional, and a whole lot more interesting. There are the pathos of a complex characterization here within a character archetype that would otherwise come off as hokey in the hands of anybody who wouldn’t give it their all like Malone does here with a mouthful of spit. Sorry, but that’s the best way to sum up a performance like this one.
Malone mentioned in interviews that Refn told her that Ruby was a legitimate witch. So in a film that’s not so tuned-in for the supernatural (and more metaphorical with its extended setpieces of horror, such as the runaway sequence), it’s interesting to watch and witness a character actually dive into that by the end of the film. Ruby’s character comes, she causes conflict, she causes the demise - she’s a terrifying creature, but in the last scene, Refn has us questioning if she was the true supernatural presence in the material, overall. Malone plays it with a ferocity that is rare. I didn’t realize it before, but following much of her work from the actress before this film, I’m kicking myself wondering why I didn’t recognize and adore her so much before.
Refn’s narrative avoids any kind of classic three-act structure (possibly due to his improvisational approach), and instead exists on a loose two-act structure, plus footnotes that aren’t always revelatory. It doesn’t actively participate in horror beyond a visually metaphoric one until those footnotes come around, and when those things do come around, the film completely shifts the former hour and complicates it. I was quite infatuated with The Neon Demon’s scattered nature, but something I noticed on a second viewing is that the movie isn’t anywhere as scattered as it originally seemed. It’s actually pretty straightforward and bizarrely consistent, and works wonders when approached as an ensemble picture.
Elle Fanning is the face of the movie; the main string that holds it together, and she’s quite brilliant. However, her tale from shy-to-diva isn’t the sole story of the film, because Refn understands the other girls just wouldn’t let that be the case. It’s thematically contradictory to keep it just her film.
In that regard, you can follow each character from the sidelines, and watch as they reach their individual conclusions - all of which end in variations of the horror genre (occult horror, body horror, vampiric horror, slasher horror, De Palma lesbian seduction quickly turned into Rollin gazing - by a female cinematographer - horror). By the final scene, you even start to question whether or not Fanning was the leading lady at all, or if she was just another Janet Leigh leading us to the film’s true focal point. I will say this, it’s been a while since a film threw me for a loop like that - especially when, by the end of her own character arc, Refn tempts you on whether to even root for her anymore.
Which leads us to the doppelgänger models who are apart of Ruby’s occultic, cannibalistic trio (played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee). When exactly did they lose their identity to the vapidity of their beauty, and what propels them to work hard for that stature? Refn doesn’t even care to get too in-depth, and instead sits at the horror telling of their characters. One consumed by guilt, the other always starving for the limelight - with aspects of depression, eating disorders, and other conflicts hidden to themselves. That the entire final fifteen or so minutes are dedicated to them is a testament to Refn’s viewpoint of characterization - especially in hindsight of Drive and Only God Forgives with their supporting characters.
In terms of Refn’s symbolism (somewhat criticized by detractors of the film), animals symbolize in multiples: the fakery and emptiness of exterior beauty, the occult practices at hand by the witch, and the animalistic drive to attack and devour those in the way within a cutthroat industry. It’s not subtle, but it’s definitely effective.
The city of Los Angeles looms in many, many scenes - especially exterior - whether it be a symbol of dreams at the start (where Fanning’s character dances in the moonlight over the landscape of lights), and then artifice by the end when Jessie is floating like a goddess above an empty swimming pool. It’s there, but it’s also there when Ruby gives a witchy ritual under the moonlight; smiling in a way that feels more wholesome than when her loneliness plugs her immediately into objectifying a human corpse. Her tragedy is resolved by her occult practices.
The Neon Demon is still a bit campy, and for that it’s often funny. It’s warped, it’s genuinely creepy, but it’s also even a bit well-rounded in capturing a theme so vividly under the genre of horror, without ever preparing itself to be anything but a twisted fantasy version of real world ideals. Refn’s films have always impressed me, but with his latest, I found my succumbing to his auteur traits, and seeing his language more clearly than I had before. The Neon Demon plays as both homage (Jodorowsky and Argento and Bava) and densely fresh genre fare in terms of horror as a cinematic language. I doubt I’ll see a better film in 2016.