I watched The Neon Demon a couple weeks ago, which I really enjoyed, and I want to talk about some of its stylistic choices. (Also thanks to everyone who spent time discussing the movie with me. I am definitely stealing your ideas for this post.)
Before I begin, I want to make two disclaimers. 1) Spoilers. 2) I think this movie suffers if over analyzed, but it’s also very easy to over analyze because of how symbolic it gets. I’ve read some articles that take the interpretation that Gigi, Sarah, and Ruby are witches. It’s a really interesting interpretation and I’m glad someone made it because it points out how ritualistic the movie is, but I think that makes the movie too literal. (Although if that’s your jam, you can read that interpretation here.) As soon as you assume everything you saw actually happened like that or try to map the characters too hard onto an idea or symbol, the power and atmosphere of the imagery starts to fade.
Some summary for those who haven’t seen it (skip this paragraph if you have). Jesse has recently moved to LA to join the modeling industry. She quickly falls in with Gigi (a model), Sarah (a model), and Ruby (a make-up artist for both models and corpses). Ruby is worried about how Jesse might be spoiled by the industry and offers help on several occasions (later we learn Ruby is in love with Jesse, or at least the fact that she’s a virgin, calling her earlier actions into question). The modeling industry quickly laps Jesse up, leaving Gigi and Sarah feeling like their jobs are in jeopardy. After Jesse hears her landlord rape a woman one room over, she flees to Ruby, only to find she has to reject Ruby’s advances. Later that night, Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah kill Jesse and eat her. Ruby buries Jesse and later gives birth, has a very heavy menstrual cycle, something? Sarah finds herself advancing in the modeling industry while Gigi is unable to handle the cannibalism and vomits up Jesse’s eye before killing herself.
What is up with the mirrors in this movie?
I’m glad you asked. Almost the entire movie is shot through mirrors (for example, most of the bathroom scene, we’re seeing the characters’ faces reflected in the mirrors. Jesse’s hotel room also has a mirror and it’s very tricky figuring out if we’re looking at her or the mirror). What I absolutely love is that there are several scenes where it looks like we’re just watching a scene normally and then it turns out it’s in a mirror or the whole scene goes by and it’s unclear if we were looking at mirror or not. Of course the whole movie is about body image and comparing ourselves to others and seeing a fake image of ourselves. I think the mirrors also create an otherworldly atmosphere and it calls into question the truth of the story.
Food? Sex? Danger? Innocence?
Yes, those things. All those ideas are strong motifs in the movie. Ruby asks Jesse if she’s food or sex. Ruby is driven by sex. She wants to have sex with Jesse because she’s an innocent. Ruby also has sex with a corpse. Gigi calls Jesse dessert and at the end of the movie they eat her. One way to interpret these ideas is that food is innocence because it is passive and submissive. Food is eaten. It’s often sweet or cute or pretty. Sex is dangerous because it’s a taboo and it’s active and it can be scary and violent and about ownership (rape is brought up). But, interestingly, food is often sexy. The mouth is intimate in a similar way to sex and feeding other people is often portrayed as sexy. And I think considering how those two images combine and are kind of the same thing does a lot to bring out the movie’s tone.
So, we could consider Gigi, Sarah, and Ruby as dangerous and sexy because they are mean and worldly and all about creating sexy bodies (and also murderers, I guess). Jesse is then innocent because she’s the opposite of that. I think this is how the movie presents itself on first blush, but similar to the food-sex motif, the lines between dangerous and innocent are blurry. Personally, I think Jesse is not as innocent as she’s pretending to me. I was first convinced of this because of her reaction to finding a cougar in her room. On the one hand, this foreshadows her landlord, who later tries to break into her room and rape her. But, Jesse is also totally unafraid. I think it’s because she’s just as dangerous as that cat. She also tells a story about her mother calling her a dangerous girl, which feels to me like more than Jesse just being arrogant. And, finally, in the end Gigi can’t handle her. She’s too dangerous. (Another interpretation of that final scene I like is that Gigi has had so much plastic surgery that she can’t handle a real body being inside her.)
What about that Gothic house?
Yes, what is up with that house? After running away from her hotel room, Jesse goes to Ruby, who claims she’s house-sitting. The way she says it makes me really question if that’s true. Possible other options: she broke in, it’s hers, it’s Jack’s (the creepy photographer). This is also where Jesse rejects Ruby, Ruby kills her, and the three women eat her/bathe in her blood. If it is Jack’s house, it almost gives him a part in the murder. Personally, as much as that dynamic is interesting, I don’t like it very much. I think the movie is about these four women and how they chose to interact with each other. Jack doesn’t have a place in the murder.
The whole movie beautiful, but many of the locations are kind of gritty and very modern. The house is more grand and opulent. Again, why? I do think it makes the ending a little more surreal because we’re off-kilter in this grand world. It also makes the murder feel more like a fairy tale, which makes it easier to see the cannibalism as magical realism.
I think a lot of people had problems with the sex scene between Ruby and the corpse. I understand that. I once put down a book with a necrophilia scene because it felt disrespectful and mostly like it was just there to be gross. Oddly enough, I think it worked here really well. It’s pretty obvious Ruby is thinking about Jesse during this scene, which goes along with this idea of creating fake images of people. Ruby uses the corpse (also, foreshadowing) to create a version of Jesse she likes better. I think it also ties together the death and sex motifs, which we see again later when Ruby buries whatever’s left of Jesse and lies on her grave. Also an interesting scene because she seems so content doing that. I’m going to be honest, I don’t fully understand Ruby’s ending. The bleeding feels very ritualistic, very witchy, very female empowerment. I think I find it confusing because it’s the only really magical thing we see on camera. Yes eating Jesse gets Sarah a gig, but that isn’t inherently magical. Ruby’s last scene feels and looks like magic, so I struggle a little to find its place in the story.
If you have additional thoughts or topics, I’d love to talk them out because this movie has a lot more to offer than just what I’ve pointed out here.