A young girl arrives in Los Angeles with no family, no friends, barely any money, a sketchy backstory with more left unsaid than divulged. Maybe we accept that her name is Jesse; maybe we wonder if it isn’t. Maybe we accept that she’s 16 years old; maybe we recognize that she’s probably younger. How nice that a trio of older women would accept her into their midst, take her under their wing, teach her about the modeling business, who to avoid and who to trust. How unexpected when they eat her.
Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t seem to believe in nuance. Bronson is brawny and vulgar; Valhalla Rising is blood-drenched and bleak; Drive is a golden-hued noir; Only God Forgives is an unhinged portrait of familial decay; and The Neon Demon is saturated and glittery and ugly. The only Refn film focusing primarily on female characters, The Neon Demon makes some obvious points about Hollywood, celebrity, and fame that are simultaneously oppositional and co-dependent, though presented with great style: natural beauty is the only true currency, so the patriarchal fashion machine will abuse you for it—but nothing is as authentic as unengineered perfection, which is why everyone wants to possess it.
“Are you food, or are you sex?” ask the three women who befriend Elle Fanning’s Jesse, three predators surveying their prey. Can we use you? Can we eat you up?
Is there a difference?
Witches appear in practically every culture, in histories stretching back centuries, women who are mysterious and powerful and isolated and other. Witchy women are a constant in film and television, from horror to comedy to romance. They straddle the line between traditional femininity and a purposeful rejection of mainstream society, often weaponizing men’s expectations of what they should be like against them.
These are women whose power is drawn from each other. They are rarely alone; there is a strength in organizing and uniting against external threats, in joining power together. And they are resisting something, with every spell they cast and every ritual in which they participate, defying what men claim to be the natural order, the dominance of men over women. These women don’t want to submit. They don’t want to surrender. They don’t want to die.
And so the extension of evil to which they’ve already committed their souls deepens and festers. They manipulate, they self-preserve, they kill, and they consume: a kidnapped baby, mushed up into a sludge of blood and fat to coat a broomstick (and maybe to eat) in The Witch, or a devoted witch sacrificing herself to be devoured by fellow members of her own coven in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. From the flesh of another and the companionship of allies comes a power that would be nearly impossible to obtain individually—one that is lusted after and desired, that corrupts with every bite.
The coven portrayed in The Neon Demon is used to the soul-sucking nature of Hollywood. They consider the men in the business the real villains; they call themselves “good girls.” Maybe that’s why they eat Jesse—to fill some part of themselves they can’t replace.
Fanning’s Jesse is a fairy tale come to life, but when she’s first presented on-screen, it’s in death: lying on a chaise lounge, made up like a doll, with shiny bubblegum lips, stickers and glitter all over her face, a gush of blood dripping down her neck and chest and arm, in a room bathed in neon red light. “You just have such beautiful skin,” compliments makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who admits to “staring” and offers to help fair, blonde, blue-eyed Jesse wipe off the fake blood. “That whole deer-in-the-headlights thing is exactly what they want,” Ruby reassures Jesse, who then invites the younger girl out to a party—“the fun kind.”
Is it a party, or an initiation? The place is bathed in neon purple and fuchsia light, in the same color family as the neon red light of Jesse’s slit-throated portrait session. This is where Ruby introduces Jesse to her two friends, models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). If Jesse is a fairy-tale princess, these women are the fairy-tale witches—already a unit, organized in a loose hierarchy, with an agreement to look out for each other. Sarah and Gigi are both tall, blonde, and beautiful, but where Gigi is openly superior, Sarah is aggressively hostile. While the four women try on lipstick in the bathroom, their personalities come into clear focus:
Gigi: God, I love this color on me.
Ruby: Red rum…That’s what it’s called. They say women are more likely to buy a lipstick if it’s named after food or sex. Just think about it: black honey, plum passion, peachy keen.
Gigi: Pink pussy.
Ruby: What about you, Sarah? What would your lipstick be called?
Sarah: Fuck off.
Ruby: Apt. What about you?
Jesse: What about me?
Ruby: Are you food, or are you sex?
Gigi: She’s dessert, because she’s so sweet.
Ruby [applying lipstick on Jesse]: Open your mouth.
These women dress in sequins, lace, and faux fur; they seem mature, adult, and experienced compared to Jesse, in her peasant blouse, denim skirt, and braided hair. “Plastics is just good grooming,” says Gigi, who brags of being her plastic surgeon’s “bionic woman;” Sarah demands to know of Jesse, “Who is she fucking? Who could she fuck? How high could she climb, and is it higher than me?” They’ve already experienced what Jesse has yet to endure: auditions for disinterested men, insults and rejections, judgments on their faces and bodies and worth. Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah line up in a row, bathed in pink light; they’re a barrier between that glow and Jesse, who stands in blue light on the other side of the bathroom. The coven is considering whether to accept a new member; the trio of women are protecting each other from a newcomer they don’t yet trust.
That dichotomy of light is a recurring visual indicator throughout the film, from the strobe-lit performance at the end of the party, set to Julian Winding’s pulsing and eerie “The Demon Dance,” in which bound women levitate upward, to Jesse’s first runway walk, the moment in the film where her character starts to turn, to lean toward the same corruption that has influenced Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi.
Blue vs. pink, calm vs. chaotic, to eat vs. to be eaten—or the journey Jesse takes from being “real hard candy,” as described by her scuzzy motel landlord, to her bold declaration later in the film that women “starve to death” to look like her.
How to stop from starving? You eat.
Jesse makes a series of choices that propel her away from the innocent girl Ruby thought she was—less a transformation, and more like a reveal. Her intentionally feminine, almost juvenile outfits (a floral-print empire-waist mini; a floaty lavender dress; a gauzy, diaphanous white gown, like something a helpless princess would wear while trapped in a tower, waiting to be saved) mask something more cynical, an understanding that “I can make money off pretty.” As more and more people, particularly men, tell her the power of her beauty—dewy skin, expressive eyes, rosy cheeks—she embraces it. A photo shoot where she strips naked and is painted with gold is an exploration into royalty, gild on the lily, a precious ornament. Her profile as she faces a bouquet of pink roses, her golden hair splayed out to one side while fallen petals frame the other, evokes Ophelia in death.
Who is Jesse after that first runway walk, after she replaces Gigi to wear the final gown in the show, after she is revealed as the designer Sarno’s (Alessandro Nivola) new muse? How does she mutate from being outside the coven to being a threat to it? When Jesse emerges from backstage and steps onto the runway, there is a glowing triangle symbol at the end of it, one shape made out of four interior triangles—a beacon, a portal, a conduit for her inner self—that enthralls her. The light changes from blue to red. We see what Jesse sees: a reflection of herself emerges from the quadrupled triangle shape, spawning other replications. A line of women standing between Jesse and the red light, a recreation of the bathroom scene with the coven from the beginning of the film—but this time Jesse herself is extending power, rejecting the alliance of others.
There are three Jesses now, lusher than the original girl, kissing each other, smearing lipstick on the mirrors, coyly looking upon the original Jesse on the other side of the runway. The blue triangle Jesse emerged from, on the other end of the runway, has altered itself to fuchsia; the way back from the runway is the same as the way forward. The woman Jesse is now is not the girl she was. The same desire for beauty-as-currency that inspired the witches has claimed the princess, too.
“I don’t want to be them. They want to be me,” Jesse—now with wavy hair, a form-fitting sequined top, and painted lips—reassures a suitor after the show. Her humanity has been replaced with a sort of serpentine quality, something colder. She agrees with Sarno’s statement that “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Once a girl who dressed in flowers, her silhouette is now a black void against the floral wallpaper of her motel room. After rejecting Ruby’s sexual invitation, she puts on a Cinderella blue gown, paints glitter on her face, and nonchalantly says, “I know what I look like. What’s wrong with that, anyway?”
What’s wrong, of course, is that Jesse has crossed the threshold from sex to food—the only meal that will be consumed during the entirety of The Neon Demon. If Gigi, Sarah, and Ruby are in a battle for Jesse’s body, then her refusal to sleep with Ruby or to step aside for Gigi and Sarah—to join the coven—is the step forward that cannot be undone. How Jesse jerked her cut hand away from Sarah when the model lunged forward to lick the blood pooling in her palm; the grievance Gigi felt when Jesse walked the runway finale instead of her and was praised as incomparably beautiful; the dismissal Ruby weathered when Jesse shoved her away in bed—three missteps, three rejections, three reasons to be punished.
No one eats in The Neon Demon. Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi meet in a diner but don’t order food; Gigi toys with the wait staff, asking them to repeat specials and food options, but does so for her own amusement. After the fashion show, Sarno, Gigi, and Jesse sit in booths at a restaurant, but there is no food then, either. “Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?” Sarah says. The nourishment the coven wants has to come from that fresh meat itself. It has to come from Jesse.
There is a symmetry to how the film sets up her consumption: There are three animal predators in the film (a mountain lion that breaks into and destroys Jesse’s motel room, and a stuffed jaguar and a stuffed wolf in the house where Ruby takes Jesse), and, it’s ultimately revealed, three witches—those same self-described “good girls.” “I’m not as helpless as I look,” Jesse says, but she is just one woman, only beginning to realize her power, against three women desperate to usurp it. Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah chase her through the mansion, through the melancholic blue tones of the kitchen to the neon red bowels of the house, take knives and teeth to her body, slather themselves in her blood.
Are you food, or are you sex? You can’t be both.
Shakespeare imagined a kiss as a gesture that could consume both parties; fairy tales present true love’s embrace as the key to life. The Neon Demon takes these opposing ideas and, in typical Refn fashion, ratchets them into something practically grotesque. To be aware of beauty is to be corrupted by it, to develop a covetous lust for it, to equate possessing it with consuming it. Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi fetishized Jesse’s body and wanted it for their own, quite plainly—they craved it, and the only way to satisfy a craving is to eat.
But if the meat has turned, if decay has started, then there is the threat of poison—and by the end of The Neon Demon, Jesse’s warnings of being “dangerous” come to pass. The same transformation that made her like the witches is exactly what inhibits their permanent consumption of her. Her refusal to join the coven is what destroys it.
After leading the attack on her desired lover, Ruby uncontrollably bleeds and dies, her body covered in occult tattoos and posed as a sort of death offering to the full moon. At a modeling job with the photographer who had previously painted Jesse in gold, Gigi is feverish and disturbed, considering herself in front of a mirror lined with layers of blue trim, stabbing herself in the stomach to “get her out of me.”
It is only Sarah, the first woman to taste Jesse’s blood—from when she cut her hand on a broken mirror, from before she was changed by the runway walk—who is able to keep her inside. With her aviators on to shield her from the blue room that claimed Gigi and standing in a hallway lit in red, Sarah ever so gently picks up Jesse’s eyeball that Gigi vomited, places it in her mouth, and returns to the photoshoot outside. “I ate her,” Sarah had already bluntly said to a rival model who asked if she “ever had a girl screw you out of a job.” She may be a cannibalistic witch, but she’s not a liar.
So much of The Neon Demon reiterates themes we’ve come to expect from cautionary stories about beautiful young women traveling to Hollywood for fame: there are abusive, untrustworthy men; there are unexpected bursts of destructive violence; and there are “good girls” who aren’t exactly what they seem. Refn’s film isn’t nuanced in its exploration of those ideas, but the way it intersects how Hollywood puts figurative expiration dates on women’s bodies with the morbid viciousness of literal consumption makes for an unsettling realization that what can be eaten is not that different from the entity doing the eating.