When a film has received both a 17-minute standing ovation, and caused two fights between critics, it's safe to call it polarizing. Such was the reaction to Nicolas Winding Refn's newest project The Neon Demon: a psychological thriller set in the Los Angeles modeling industry that premiered at Cannes Film Festival last month.
But for a film that's ripe with themes of cannibalism, necrophilia and pedophilia — all while enveloped in evocative visuals and a hypnotic score — it's not entirely surprising. In turn, The Neon Demon draws similarities to another film that deals a disturbing blow to the glossy image of a creative industry: Black Swan.
Viewed adjacently, the movies could be seen as companion pieces; cautionary tales of the pursuit of creative arts and the dangerous tolls of attempting to achieve artistic perfection. Here's how both films draw this conclusion — with unsettling results.
(Editor's note: Detailed spoilers for The Neon Demon ahead).
The industries are unforgiving to those who age. With both films, the stakes are raised thanks to the importance placed on competition. In Black Swan, Nina (Natalie Portman) is granted the opportunity to star in Swan Lake, but only because the previous lead, Beth (Winona Ryder), is forced into retirement by the play's director. The distress of being, essentially, put out to pasture causes Beth to unravel — her short-lived career ending so swiftly.
Similarly, The Neon Demon's protagonist, Jesse (Elle Fanning), must stand out against her peers, as hundreds walk through the doors of agencies every day, posits one modeling agent (Christina Hendricks). Even then, many will be considered too old for the industry at 21.
Why can't Jesse do anything else? She admits herself that she isn't particularly good at anything; her saving grace is her beauty.
"I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't write — no real talent," she says. "But I'm pretty."
Again, this harkens back to the vitality of youth. Regardless of appearance, their value — and in Jesse's case, beauty — diminishes with age. And because Jesse is 16 (posing as 19), her career, then, has a larger window than most. That, in and of itself, is threatening to her contemporaries.
The protagonists perceive threats from their peers (imagined or otherwise). Nina extrapolates the threat from competition for the lead in Swan Lake, Lily (Mila Kunis). Because Lily's easygoing, flirtatious personality makes her inherently perfect as the role of Black Swan, and Nina the innocent White Swan, Nina begins a series of wild hallucinations involving her counterpart. Eventually, they turn violent, and Nina seemingly kills Lily in the final act by hurling her toward a mirror.
However, it's revealed as another illusion, with Nina's mental psyche unraveling the further she commits herself to the role.
Conversely, there is a palpable threat to Jesse in the veteran models, Sarah and Gigi (played by Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote, respectively) who are jealous of the immediate attention Jesse receives from renowned photographers and casting directors. To them, Jesse has a fresh-faced, youthful allure, to the surgically-enhanced looks of themselves.
But Jesse underestimates the lengths to which they'll go to capture her beauty — even though it's initially unclear if obtaining that beauty is tangible.
Gigi, who breaks a mirror in frustration for blowing a casting where Jesse lands the role with ease, accidentally slices Jesse's hand with glass and, quite literally, drinks her blood in an attempt to capture it.
Both lose their humanity, and are consumed by the chance of achieving perfection. Nina is ultimately successful at portraying the Black Swan, but at a great cost. She ends up stabbing herself with the broken mirror, not Lily, and many interpret the ending of the film — and Nina's incredible performance — as costing Nina her life (hence, why her overly concerned mother is weeping in the audience).
"I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect," Nina says, lying in a pool of her own blood as the credits fade in.
Jesse, meanwhile, underscores her beauty by acknowledging that people would kill to have her looks, but will ultimately be second-rate compared to her. However, others being consumed by Jesse's beauty takes a literal definition in The Neon Demon.
Sarah and Gigi, fearful of Jesse's prominence, kill and eat her as a last ditch effort to stay relevant in the industry (obviously, the film's polarizing tone is in full effect through the gory final act). While gruesome, eating Jesse works as their own fountain of youth, and both are immediately recruited by a distinguished photographer (Desmond Harrington), who was obsessed with Jesse's beauty at the onset.
Though The Neon Demon likely won't garner the same critical attention as Black Swan during awards season, the underlying message, albeit one covered in gore and miscellaneous body parts, rings true. Fashion, like ballet, is dangerous to the innocent and inexperienced, and if you aren't careful, the industry could eat you alive.