Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is an irreproachably beautiful movie, which is problematic when making a movie about beauty. Ostensibly the movie decries objectification of beautiful women, while the cinematography enhances it, to the point that any feminist critique is rendered inert at best and hypocritical at worst.
It makes sense for the actresses in The Neon Demon to be beautiful, since they play models. But the aesthetic of the film undercuts the feminist message, since almost every shot uses the actresses’ beauty as part of the sumptuous visual style. Elle Fanning’s Jesse always looks like an ethereal princess, whether she’s cowering from a child rapist or watching two versions of herself make out with each other or having gold paint slathered on her bare chest by a creepy photographer.
And then there’s real-life supermodel Abbey Lee, who turned in a fiercely committed performance, but whose striking appearance is undeniably used to enhance the aesthetic of the film, to the point that entire scenes are composed to bring out the blue in her eyes:
It’s possible to cast beautiful actresses in a movie about objectification without objectifying them yourself, as Refn demonstrates in one inconspicuous but nearly perfect scene. It’s the most stripped-down and the least visually flashy, and it’s the only scene of the film that gets the point across.
In this scene, Jesse and Sarah, the over-the-hill 25-year-old played by Abbey Lee, are auditioning for a fashion designer in their underwear, which was inspired by real-life practices. The models are clearly gorgeous, but the restrained cinematography makes them look like real flesh-and-blood human beings. And since they look like humans rather than fantasies, they are uncomfortably vulnerable and make the audience feel for them in a way that no other scene in this movie does.
“The idea of shooting this scene all in underwear, which is a true scenario, is that it makes everything pure meat,” Winding Refn said in Anatomy of a Scene. “And the idea is that you’re disposable and you’re degraded and you’re kind of looked upon as nothing but a prop.”
This scene skillfully illustrates the tragedy of objectification and the balance of power in the patriarchy; just look at this shot of the eerily still models who could easily be mannequins, one of whom even has her head cut off by the frame:
Or this shot of a male fashion designer, foregrounded with a mirror reflecting the blurred-out models behind him:
“Part of the [reason for] shooting in a basement in Los Angeles was to give it a slaughterhouse feel. Though it looks very glamorous and clinical, it has a sense of death around it, which is a common theme throughout the movie, is death and beauty always entangle into each other.”
And The Neon Demon always does associate sex with death, with varying degrees of success. With only a couple of exceptions, the film is a noir that fetishizes death (quite literally, in one of the more memorable scenes). The dead, beautiful women are indeed supposed to be tragic, but in a disturbingly romanticized way. In the more visually stunning moments of the film, Elle Fanning is a modern-day Annabel Lee, kept young and innocent in perpetuity by virtue of being consumed by others. It’s a desexualized type of objectification, but no less disempowering. That humbler, quieter scene in a Los Angeles basement is the only one that successfully laments her lack of agency, the only one in which she gets to be the protagonist of her own (very sad) story.