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Beauty is Only Skin Deep in ‘The Neon Demon.’ Under That, There’s Blood

Nicolas Winding Refn’s disturbing examination of the modeling industry is full of dramatic lighting, misdirected lust and deadly jealousy

With more and more movie streaming services popping up, it can feel impossible to keep track of what’s showing where. So to help, this October I’ll be recommending a different film every day from one such service that embodies the spooky spirit of the season. From classic Halloween movies to indie horror to campy dark comedies, this is 31 Days of a Very Chingy Halloween.

Today, I’m looking at The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s bloody examination of beauty, available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to L.A. from Georgia after her parents die with hopes of becoming a model. She swiftly becomes a sensation, with everyone in the industry being taken with her natural radiance. But beauty is a currency in this world, and as Jesse soon learns, it attracts plenty of envy, lust and contempt as well.

Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s most famous film, the stuntman crime drama Drive, The Neon Demon focuses on a specific career. But rather than being based on a particular skill, it’s more concerned with the seemingly intangible concept of beauty. The cast is built out of petite, pale women adorned in vibrant latex, leather and lingerie. They’re slathered in metallic makeup, standing against backdrops of pure white or pitch black, and bathed in colored light, typically the titular neon (which Refn’s other works also have a fondness for). 

All this considered, Demon almost smacks you over the head with the concept that not all that glitters is gold. The film can be a mixed bag, largely because of its script, with dialogue that sounds almost alien, and characters saying exactly what they think in grandiose statements that capture their belief systems. In a group of more seasoned (but less effervescent) models, one girl discuss how the most popular lipsticks are all named after something edible or fuckable before asking the fresh-faced Jesse, “Are you food or are you sex?” Elsewhere, a fashion designer played by Alessandro Nivola gets into an argument over whether true grace can be replicated through surgery, as he exclaims, “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” While these are the kind of pretentious truisms the vapid elite would make, it almost feels too haughty to be believed.

Thankfully, Refn’s specialty is flair, not dialogue, and Neon Demon really becomes remarkable when he lets his style do the talking. Jesse is 16 and virginal, and her innocence and youth is coveted by those around her in increasingly disturbing ways. In one moment, she cuts her hand, and a less popular model tries to slurp her blood in a vampiric attempt to sap her essence. A shady motel owner (played by Keanu Reeves in a rare turn as a thoroughly unlikable character) tries to have his way with Jesse before failing and doing something unseen — but just as unspeakable — to the girl next door. When Jesse rebuffs a woman’s sexual advances, it’s soon followed by a scene of sapphic necrophilia with a beautiful corpse. If it’s not you, there’s always some other girl.

Despite being the protagonist, Jesse is less of a fleshed-out person and more of a cipher for the desires and envy of those around her. She becomes akin to a virgin sacrifice for a youth-obsessed culture that’s often hellbent with destroying the women they lust after and admire. In its totality, The Neon Demon posits that beauty is only skin deep, and under that is merely flesh, bone and blood.

To see a list of each of the previous entries, check out the A Very Chingy Halloween list on Letterboxd.