Are you sex or food? She’s dessert…. Because she’s so sweet.
In the claws-out fashion world of LA, green eyes and plastic smiles twist compliments into daggers. It seems there are no friends among rivals.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is the new girl in town. At 16 years old – 19 if anyone asks – her innocence will prove to be that thing that everyone hungers for, but her quick progression will seed a poisonous vanity and make enemies of other models. Sarah and Gigi are veterans of the catwalk, and resentfully so. They show a relentless competitive streak and willingness to cut and stitch themselves into perfection. They are introduced to Jesse by make-up artist and mortician Ruby who seems just as obsessed with Jesse’s appearance as the camera.
In Refn favourite La Dolce Vita a swarm of paparazzo scurry and scramble over each other to get photographs of female stars. Like mosquitoes they are a persistent nuisance but no real threat – the women have power and an industry has been built around their sexuality. This is also true of The Neon Demon but on the surface it looks just the opposite, with girls clawing and clamoring to get in front of the camera and be noticed.
The male presence in the film is concentrated down to a few peripheral misogynists who seem to possess power no matter where they fall on the scale – from photographer and collection designer to motel manager. They speak very seldom but when they do they give orders. Enamored by Jesse’s natural beauty, you realise that her uncorrupt innocence is interchangeable with naivete and youthfulness, or perhaps even virginity. This infantilisation offers a stark satire of the fashion industry but it is not so far from the truth. Glammed up and glossed over it is the commodification of something lurid that exits in the underbelly of society too – ‘real Lolita shit’ says the motel manager of a 13 year old you can pay to fuck in a room neighbouring Jesse’s.
Whilst the film appears to be about girls, divorced from Refn’s sexualised male fantasy in Drive and Freudian complex in Only God Forgives, his few male characters signify authority and force the girls to compete in creating something like the ‘anti-female friendship’ film. They fight each other to have the opportunity to be exploited and objectified – which seems to be self-reflexive of the film. Refn’s male gaze is often felt behind the camera, at one point actually taking the point-of-view of an attacker, and when the film nose dives into exploitation in the third act it takes on the same predatory voyeurism, which is all part of its charm.
The final moments of the film could be seen as a comical misreading of the expression that escapes all involved in this industry – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.