Saturday, October 27, 2018

Playing with Tropes: The Neon Demon

Some time ago my brother suggested that he would like to see me look at the 2016 Nicolas Winding Refn film about the fashion industry on TMtV and whilst the surreal and horrific exploration might seem, on the surface, to be little more than the run up through jealousy to murder, perhaps taking its cue from gaillo, if you dig beneath the surface you discover aspects that could correspond to witchcraft and/or vampirism – especially of the Báthory variety.

This, in and of itself, is interesting due to an exchange in the film when haute couture designer Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) says to amateur photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) “So are you gonna tell me that it's what's inside that counts?” When Dean affirms this Sarno is dismissive and, for him, all is surface. The film, later, does play further with this (as we’ll see), but it is worth noting that the film is stunningly beautiful in its composition and yet, as I have mentioned in conversation, it felt soulless. The response I received was that it is meant to feel that way – again reflecting a perception of the industry it exposes.

Because we are looking at tropes, be warned no spoiler is too big.

After credits with neon lighting in rotation that reminds one of gaillo, we start with a girl, draped on a sofa, her throat apparently cut and bleeding. The girl is Jesse (Elle Fanning) and the composition is vaguely Báthory-esque, the furniture almost looking like a bath in its composition, however the scene is as fake as the blood. She is new in town – a small town girl (her parents apparently dead) moved to LA to be a model. She is being shot by Dean. After the shoot she is cleaning up and makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) compliments her on her skin and then invites her to a party.

Sarah and Gigi
At the party she is introduced to established models Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Dark Shadows) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) – I’ll refer to the two, with Ruby, as the trio. In an almost throwaway moment she is seen from a distance by Jack (Desmond Harrington), a sought-after photographer – we’ll return to him shortly. In the toilets it becomes apparent that the two models are catty but in a moment of foreshadowing, whilst discussing lipstick, Ruby suggests that all lipsticks are named after food or sex as a selling point and asks Jesse what she is, food or sex. When asked about her sexual proclivity Jesse lies and suggests she is very heterosexually sexually active. We soon discover she is just 16 (she signs a parental consent form herself and is told to say she is 19).

the puma
After an encounter with a mountain lion that gets into her motel room – a moment of surreality that speaks more to the metaphorical in the first instance, but also sets up for narrative moments exploring her own selfishness with Dean (who she had been out with immediately before), and might also be deemed a summoned (by the trio) familiar – she goes on her first signed shoot. The shoot is with Jack and he calls for a closed set, just him and Jesse, making her disrobe. What the viewer first assumes to be sleazy becomes the opposite as he covers her with gold body paint, almost worshipping her. In a scene with the trio, Ruby (who was on set before it was closed) tells the others about this and we hear that Jack never does test shoots with models. He has clearly seen something special, right across the room, and this brings the Fritz Lieber story The Girl with the Hungry Eyes to mind (iro the link, scroll below the film review for the article on Lieber's short story).

drinking blood
Jesse goes to audition for Sarno’s catwalk show and he too spots her ineffable something and Sarah is displaced from the show for her. Sarah smashes a mirror in a bathroom and Jesse goes to her – the model, who perhaps is becoming too old (though still very young), states that she is becoming a ghost. Jesse accidentally presses her hand on a piece of broken glass and Sarah grabs at it, sucking at the blood until the girl pulls away. Sarah looks up at her, blood at her mouth, and the imagery is pure genre. It is Dean who removes the glass and bandages her hand (though it probably required stitches). After the bandaging we never see the wound again, as though it has healed.

Jesse and Ruby
After (probably a hallucinated) disturbing encounter with her landlord (Keanu Reeves, Dracula (1992) & the Matrix Reloaded) Jesse calls Ruby and goes to the house Ruby is staying in (as a house sitter). The makeup artist comes on to her but Jesse confesses she is a virgin. This is irrelevant to Ruby who tries to sapphically rape her but Jesse pushes her away.

Ruby's fetish
The immediate aftermath of this occurs the next day when Ruby commits necrophilia with a corpse at the mortuary, this is intercut with erotically charged images of Jesse that might be reality or might be Ruby’s fantasy. It has to be noted at this point that vampirism and necrophilia were popularly connected at one point with such activity being conflated by J K Huysmans, who points out that Sergeant Bertrand, the infamous 19th century necrophiliac, was known in the popular press as the Vampire of Montparnasse.

blood bath
When she returns to the house Jesse makes a speech about her own beauty making her dangerous (the film has made it clear that she is descending into narcissism) but recall Ruby’s question about sex and food. Jesse has rejected sex and the trio hunt her through the house and kill her. We see the models covered in gore in the shower as Ruby, gore covered, bathes in blood. But it was not just her blood they took and Jesse has been cannibalised. The next day Ruby lies in Jesse’s shallow grave and reveals occult like symbols tattooed on her torso. At night she does a moon ritual and seems to expel a gush of blood from her privates at the height of it.

vomiting the eye
The models go to a shoot that Gigi has with Jack, Sarah just accompanying. Sarah, when asked if anyone ever stole a job from her, states she ate the person. From a distance Jack sees something in Sarah and fires the second model – indicating that consuming Jesse has taken her je ne sais pas. Can we be sure that they ate her? Gigi suddenly feels sick and, leaving the outdoor shoot, enters the house. She starts heaving until she brings up an eyeball and then cries that she needs to ger *her* out of her and stabs herself with scissors – almost a staking. Sarah picks up the vomited eye and eats it herself.

So, plenty of tropes on show from the vampire genre – with cannibalism (but the sort that has a preternatural impact), occultism (and possibly witchcraft), necrophilia and blood bathing. It is not, per se, a vampire film but the strands of the genre it plays with means that it is playing with tropes and is of genre interest.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

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