“Sweet cream on an ice cream sandwich! What have I just witnessed?” If you’ve just finished watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest journey into beautiful cinematic WTFuckery, The Neon Demon, you can probably relate to this sentiment. Today, we are going to be talking about the film’s many ambiguous (and utterly bizarre) moments and what they possibly mean. So, needless to say, a SPOILER ALERT is in full effect.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old small-town orphan and aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles, where she goes to work for a big time modeling agency. The head of said agency (Christina Hendricks) tells her that she has that indefinable star quality that everybody wants but few have, that the regular resident photographers will be fascinated by, and that the other femme-fatale models will immediately be jealous of.
Jesse takes up residence in a seedy motel managed by the lecherous and treacherous Hank (Keanu Reeves).
As for the other beauty-obsessed models at her agency – including Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote), and Sarah (Abbey Lee) – because they would do anything to possess the passive-aggressive vulnerability/power that comes to Jesse naturally, they begin to chip away at her youth, innocence, and vitality as if to siphon it off to themselves.
But Jesse’s apparent naivete doesn’t linger.
Jesse goes through somewhat of a transformation throughout the film. At first she is starry-eyed innocent and doesn’t quite grasp what everyone sees in her, but she slowly starts accepting it. There’s a long sequence where we see innocent Jesse watching a more sinister Jesse kissing her reflection and giving innocent Jesse somewhat of a sinister glare. After this sequence, Jesse appears, walking through a door, looking like the dark side has finally taken over and she now knows that she is beautiful and everyone wants her. This even leads her to essentially tell her love interest, who hasn’t done anything out of pocket, to essentially *beep* off, because she wants to properly assimilate with the higher ups. We later see her laying on her bed stretching out her legs, almost basking in the glory.
This is where things go nuts.
Later, Jesse has a nightmare of Hank coming into her room and making her swallow a knife in a violent manner. She wakes up in time to hear someone, maybe him, trying to enter her apartment. She is able to barricade the door, but is forced to listen as the intruder instead breaks into her next-door neighbor’s room and assaults her. Terrified, Jesse calls Ruby, who tells her to come to her place for safety. After Jesse comes to Ruby’s house, Ruby tries to initiate sex with Jesse, who rejects her. Upset, Ruby leaves for her second job as a makeup artist for a morgue. There, she pleasures herself with a female corpse while thinking about Jesse (and there’s a lot of spit involved).
Meanwhile, Jesse dons an extravagant gown and makeup and greets Ruby when she returns home, monologuing about how other women would do anything to have her looks, but will only ever become second-rate versions of her. Inside the mansion, Jesse is attacked and pursued by Gigi and Sarah. They eventually corner her outside, and Ruby pushes her into their empty swimming pool, fatally injuring her. The three women are then shown approaching her body and then apparently bathing in her blood.
The next day, Gigi and Sarah drive to a photo shoot at a seaside mansion. In the midst of the shoot, Gigi suddenly falls ill and has to leave the set. Sarah finds her desperately trying to throw up, screaming, “I have to get her out of me.” Gigi vomits up one of Jesse’s eyeballs, then cuts open her stomach with a pair of scissors and bleeds out. Sarah watches Gigi die and then eats the regurgitated eyeball before calmly returning to the set. Sheesh!
So, what the hell happened, exactly? Is there anything actually supernatural going on? Did the girls truly, Countess Báthory-style, capture Jesse’s sprit? Is this the first time that they’ve done this? What really made Gigi pull a hara-kiri? What’s Ruby’s deal anyway, is there more to her than meets the eye? What’s Hanks’s deal, is there more to him than meets the eye? And what’s with all the necrophilia and menorrhagia?
There is a scene where Ruby is lying in the garden, is she lying on Jesse’s grave, where they have buried whatever was left of her corpse after they were through with her? What the hell is going on?!
On a surface level, some see the cannibalism angle of this film as a stand in for eating disorders. The way models are triggering each other – dog eat dog – fits perfectly into the whole death/perfection thing. Gigi vomiting adds to this – also it being her not being able to do it anymore. Because that’s what this is all about. A bunch of girls who are competing to see which one of them can stay thin the longest. To be the most dead looking (“beautiful”). Able to digest drugs and get under the knife.
Some have pointed out that this movie basically has no consequences whatsoever. Eat or be eaten in L.A. is the “moral” of the story, literally. You can rape, murder, be cold hearted but the winner is the last one alive. However, it seems to go a bit deeper – making it simultaneously lighter and darker. By the end, Jesse was a full manifestation of the greatest evil, the demon of the movie, and through consuming her flesh and bathing in her blood, the three girls managed to re-up on their power under her reign, but at a cost. Jesse went back into the ether to be reborn, as seen over the end credits. Possibly never truly alive?
There is a constant thread of “uhhh, what?” in just about every scene of this film, from a mountain lion suddenly appearing in Jesse’s motel room to Ruby heavily menstruating naked on her floor. It’s nutter butters. Though, one of the best things about a movie so open to interpretation is that there’s no real “solution”. And there are, of course, many ways to understand it.
With that being said, what do you guys think of all this? Do you have your own thoughts, theories, explanations or questions? Let us know in the comment section below.