In the modelling business – or Refn’s version of it in The Neon Demon, at least – experience counts for nothing. It is all about the je ne sais quoi of the girl and not really about how long she has been in the gig. In this world, every girl has an expiration date so to speak, a shelf life. Confidence can only hold you back. The camera craves naive, untainted flesh on the brink of destruction – or in other words, “that whole deer in the headlights thing”, as worldly wise make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) puts it to tremulous ingenue Jesse (Super 8 and Maleficent’s Elle Fanning), who responds by doing a very serviceable impression of just that.
One of Ruby’s older charges – the hollowly stunning runway model Sarah (Abbey Lee) – frames her own rapidly approaching sell-by date to her friend and colleague Gigi (Bella Heathcote) in even more robust terms. “Who wants sour milk when you can have fresh meat?” The film is a cold plate of female psychology served to the viewer slowly and with each passing scene we get a deeper glimpse into the minds of the selfish vanity of youth. What everyone wants in this world (including other women) is young women. Purity, beauty and the fountain of youth is the prize and Jesse embodies all that is pure and true.
From the palm-prickling underworld anxiety of his Danish-language Pusher trilogy to the electro-fetish noir of his first Los Angeles-set film, Drive, sour milk and fresh meat is more or less what Nicolas Winding Refn has been serving up all along. The Neon Demon doesn’t mess with the recipe, but refines it and streamlines it even further, boiling it down into a glistening, spluttering reduction.
Instead, there’s just more surface – layer upon layer of it, like the pages of a glossy magazine, each one lacquered to a blinding shine. Refn isn’t setting out to satirise the fashion industry so much as colonise it, then deploy its substantial visual arsenal to his own nefarious ends.
Where elements of lesbian come in, the viewer may look past the sexual nature of such encounters as them being a means to an end. Lesbian urges and events in this world may have nothing to do with the sexual and more to do with obtaining the other woman’s power and beauty. One could also conclude, much like in reality, that pseudo-lesbian encounters and just that; women envying other beautiful women, wanting what they have. Much of Jena Malones character embodies this pseudo-lesbian frame and it really takes fold during a bold scene involving the corpse of a dead woman at a morgue(where she moonlights as a mortuary makeup artist. Her job is to truly bring out the beauty, find that lost beauty, in an otherwise lifeless body. The scene, in my opinion, symbolizes what this whole film is trying to say: The number one commodity in this world is young, beautiful women. Men want it, and women want to be it (forever).
I’ve been a huge fan of Refn’s work every since Drive. I always keep coming back for more as his style, characters and worlds never seem to disappoint if you want to take a trip into the sublime.