Imagery in The Neon Demon
The Young-Girl mortifies the flesh to take revenge for Biopower and the symbolic violence that the Spectacle subjects her to.
— Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl
This essay is an attempt to catalogue and hopefully map some of the imagery and themes contained in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon which I saw two days ago. It contains spoilers throughout and assumes you have seen the film.
This a very fragmented essay, so it is not particularly developed or exhaustive. Nor is it intended to be a critique. I was simply keen to get my thoughts down before the memory of the film faded.
If there are more weighty essays on the film’s handling of self-commodification, the male gaze, the gendering of the producer-consumer as feminine and so on, I would be very interested to read them.
I do not feel qualified to write those essays and I’m not sure the film lends itself all that well to deeper analysis as it operates primarily on a surface level. I am aware that it has been criticised for its apparent shallowness, and whilst I haven’t seen any of his other films I think NWR’s style-over-substance approach works well for a film that is centred around the vacuity of the fashion world.
Girls Own the Void
Jesse is both pure form and total formlessness. She appears in Hollywood as if from nowhere, having fucked no one to get there, or indeed anyone at all. Her beauty is obvious to the models, make-up artists, agents and photographers she meets, but they are unable to articulate its precise dimensions. Jesse herself admits to having no talents, just her looks. Ruby, Gigi and Sarah attempt to explain her as a series of constituent parts — her hair, her skin, her nose — yet she remains untouchable and unknowable.
Jesse’s induction into the fashion world is incredibly unsettling. Isolated against an impossibly large white plane in a photographer’s studio she appears nervous and alone. Her terror and embarrassment at coldly being told to strip naked radiates in nauseating waves against the featureless backdrop. Then the photographer turns the lights off and the immense white 2-dimensional plane is eaten up by an even more expansive, almost dimensionless blackness. In this moment Jesse both enters and becomes the void. Eventually she will die in a void, on the floor of an emptied swimming pool.
Colour, Light, Danger
Ruby, a makeup artist and funeral cosmetologist, seems initially sanguine and supportive. The hope we place in her is tentative though and it barely lasts a single scene as, reflected in a bathroom mirror under wound-coloured lights, Ruby recites the name of her lipstick: Red Rum. Lipstick, she explains, is mostly named after women’s primary desiderata: sex and food. Thanks to The Shining we know that the inversion of Ruby’s desire is death.
Jesse’s descent into darkness begins in the crepuscular light as she’s celebrating at the top of the hill with Dean, all colour drained from the frame while she balances on a wall. Later she balances on a diving board, again in the grainy colourless light just before nightfall and her death.
Voids and Threes
There is an obvious yonic aspect to the pink tri-form that appears in Jesse’s visions, but more interesting is its function as a symbol of three around one — Ruby, Gigi and Sarah arrayed around a fourth triangle, Jesse, formed from the negative space between them. The shape is resolved when the three sides of the net fold upwards to make a scarlet tetrahedron.
Gigi and Sarah are shown denying themselves food. But Jesse seems to have no desire for anything outside of herself. She is, however, forced to deny the repeated and often aggressive sexual advances of others. She is refusal in a world of consumption.
Sitting on the bonnet of his car, in a dumb Hollywood version of teenage coolness, Dean discovers Jesse is sixteen. His shoulders slump as his sexual hopes are thwarted but his desire patently remains as he continues to hang around her, bringing her flowers and so on. Dean and the hotel manager, Hank, each recognise themselves in the other and are disgusted by it. Unlike Dean though, Hank doesn’t try to convince himself that his motives are noble. He acts on his paedophiliac desire. Nevertheless, his violent approach also fails, and Jesse is spared as we hear the distressing cries from the child in the next room. The third attempt at sexual contact is made by Ruby, who Jesse is forced to finally confront physically.
Since Ruby cannot have sex with Jesse, the only act of subsumption left is cannibalism. Lipstick. Sex. Food.
Jesse tells Dean how, as a young girl, she imagined the moon as an eye as she fell asleep beneath its gaze.
‘What did you dream about?’ asks Dean.
Jesse says she dreamed of herself, what she would become. It reminds me of this section from John Berger’s series Ways of Seeing:
‘Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. […] A woman is always accompanied except when quite alone, and perhaps even then by her own image of herself. […] From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.’
Becoming a woman is to see yourself as others see you. We, the audience, take the place of the moon in Jesse’s imaginary, and as we look, we alter the qualities of the observed (in physics, the ‘observer effect’). Looking, we are constantly reminded, is never passive. The film opens with Dean’s death-stare whilst he photographs Jesse playing dead, and as her gateway into this world it is this gaze that sets her death in motion. Later, when we see Jesse looking at Hank from her window or from behind a pillar, she inverts this dynamic. Her survival is contingent on seeing, both in reality and in her dreams and visions.
There is an obvious link between lunar cycles and the loss of innocence in womanhood. After eating Jesse (forbidden food) Ruby lies naked in front of the moon, feet planted on the floor and legs slightly apart, forming triangles, blood blooms outward across the room’s floorboards.
Slumped against the bathroom tiles, Sarah asks Jesse what it’s like to enter a room and be noticed. To be ‘the sun in winter’.
As soon as Jesse admits to being aware of how she is seen, she is cut by a shard of mirror. The awareness of her own image begins the blood ritual.
Later, in a restaurant where no one eats, in the most powerful line of the film, the fashion designer shares an even more totalising view of beauty.
‘Beauty isn’t everything. It is the only thing.’
Everyone look at Jesse and Jesse looks back.
Wayne Koestenbaum’s elegiac essay Susan Sontag, Cosmophage opens with the following sentences:
‘Susan Sontag, my prose’s prime mover, ate the world. In 1963, on the subject of Sartre’s Saint Genet (her finest ideas occasionally hinged on gay men), she wrote, “Corresponding to the primitive rite of anthropophagy, the eating of human beings, is the philosophical rite of cosmophagy, the eating of the world.” Cosmophagic, Sontag gobbled up sensations, genres, concepts.’
Here we get sex and food and death. But also life. There is a fullness implied in Sontag’s consumption, that she is able to contain what she eats rather than destroy it through her consumption. That consumptive desire is present in The Neon Demon but is not so accommodating.
A more apt model is alluded to in the title of Nathaniel West’s novella The Day of the Locust whose protagonist, Todd Hackett, has bloodsoaked fantasies about breaking an aspiring young actress called Faye whilst Hollywood burns around them. There are obvious parallels here, and West’s locust eats its surroundings until nothing remains.
In the last scene of The Neon Demon, Sarah eats Jesse’s regurgitated eyeball. In this final act she eats youth and beauty, but also the sun, the moon, the unknowable void, and the gaze of the audience. She eats everything and so she becomes the only thing. As Sarah’s legs carry her rangily out of the frame, back to the photoshoot, we are left alone in the liminal white space of an empty Hollywood hallway.