Written by Kelsey Duchesne
Warning: There are spoilers galore, and I did not like this movie. Like, at all. Just a heads up!
When I heard there was going to be a new horror movie starring Elle Fanning and a predominantly female cast, I was ready. to. go. I am a longtime lover of anything scary, thrilling, or suspenseful, especially when the female characters do more than run into a corner squealing, accepting their doomed fate. Whether she's the hero or the villain, I’m always front row (okay, middle row, the front row is actually terrible!) for a female character that isn’t designated to be the empty, monotone beauty. If you can't tell by the title of this piece, The Neon Demon was not what I hoped it would be--it disturbed in all of the wrong ways.
The main character of the story is a 16 year old girl named Jesse, who moves to L.A. to become a model. Jesse is tall, thin, blonde, superrr symmetrical, and her beauty is the focal point, nay, the only point of the film. “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” a photographer tells Jesse, and she stares back at him blankly, which I guess can only mean she’s soakin’ it in?
Writer and director Nicolas Winding Refn seems to agree with the over-hyped statement, as the plethora of models and hazy Los Angeles backdrop attempts to hide the film's lack of substance. An overview: Jesse is beautiful, and other model hopefuls want her beauty. They are obsessed with beauty. At the end of the film, two fellow models kill Jesse (for her beauty) and eat her body...FOR BEAUTY. Refn’s created a horror film starring all women and made them all beauty hungry (literally) narcissists who will do anything for more beauty. Beauty….more beauty...all the beauty. The end? Not quite.
It wasn’t just the singular focus of physical appearance that made the film so aggressively volatile, but the overwhelmingly clear notion that this whole thing was made by a dude, for dudes, while waving the feminist flag simply because the cast is predominantly women. Newsflash, directors everywhere-- simply having women in your film isn’t enough! There is other stuff, too! In one scene, Jesse is seduced by an older woman named Ruby (ya know, just another fun faux girl-on-girl sex scene that will be called sex positive when it’s meant for men to enjoy.) When Jesse declines her advances, Ruby decides to have sex with a female corpse...I repeat, a corpse. You guys, I hated this movie.
What I found to be the most disturbing was the film's senseless use of sexual abuse. To break it down: a man (maybe Keanu Reeves..maybe not? This movie keeps you guessin'!) attempts to break into her room and assault her, but the door is locked. Undiscouraged, he continues on to the next room and assaults a different girl, while Jesse listens from the other side of the wall. What Refn gets right is that the possibility of being sexually abused is a very real terror, one that many women, including myself, think of often. However, this film does nothing with this plot, aside from Jesse being momentarily scared. We never know what happens to the victim, and the scene is forgotten faster than you can say “Is Jena Malone seducing a corpse!?" (I'm not over it.) At the Cannes Film Festival, actor and director Jodie Foster touched upon how rape is still used nonchalantly in film, specifically by male writers and directors. “If you really got to what was the overriding motivation that you found out at the end, it was always rape because for some reason men saw that as — they did — they saw that as this incredibly dramatic thing,” she said. “‘Well that’s easy! I can just pluck that one out of the sky and apply it to her.'” Refn doesn’t seem to agree with Foster’s sentiments. When asked by Esquire about his approach to depicting violent men versus violent woman, he answered “There's no difference in depicting violence in men and women. It’s just more interesting when you sexualize it. It’s always more terrifying if on one hand you are aroused by it and at the same time, on the other hand, you are appalled by it.”
To wrap this up (because I have officially shared this opinion with every single member of Team THINX and beyond) this movie just makes me tired. I’m tired of seeing women's relationships centered around jealousy, beauty, or attention. I’m tired of sexual abuse being a B-Plot story just to keep things tense or interesting. I’m tired of lesbian sex being used to titillate middle aged men. I'm tired of directors and critics justifying the senseless objectification and victimization of women under the pretense of social commentary on the plight of women. I don’t want to see long, drawn out shots of young girls being mutilated and call it beautiful. I don’t want to watch these movies and call them “feminist” just because it is starring a woman. I will not give this movie the "satire pass". I am not fooled-- Refn is like the Wizard of Oz, operating behind a curtain. I see him. I hope that others do, too.