Where yesterday’s Deadgirl failed in making a point about the commodification of female bodies, The Neon Demon succeeds on so many levels. Jessie is a 16-year old just arrived to LA to become a model. The movie opens with a fashion shoot where Jessie pretends to be an artfully displayed woman with her throat cut. That pretty much sets the tone for this really fucking gruesome movie. While it’s set in the modeling world, this movie is not about fashion models. It is a relentless slog through the commodification and consuming of female bodies. As such, it features rape (off camera and an attempt on camera), sexual abuse, cannibalism, fat shaming, the whole enchilada.
I’ve been reading this book on plotting, Story Genius that talks repeatedly about a story’s third rail. I’ve been trying to process that idea and I think this movie really helped with that. Every scene in this movie is somehow about commodification. They seemingly tell the story of Jessie’s descent into the modeling world, and largely, they do. But Jessie’s story is not the actual third rail of the movie. The movie has a lot of strobing light effects, so anyone with migraine issues will want to skip it. It’s a little long and at times a bit pretentious but all in all it’s a solid movie that turns a lot of things we view as normal into the horrific territory.
And the rest is spoilers.
The thing that’s interesting about this movie is that everyone is very invested in commodifying and dehumanizing women, even the women themselves. There’s the sleazy motel owner (played to perfection by Keanu Reeves) who knowingly takes in pretty underage girls just so he can rape them when he gets in the mood. There’s the supposedly infatuated would-be boyfriend, whose idea of a career-making high-fashion photoshoot is presenting the model as a corpse. The designer who literally will not even look at the models he’s casting because he don’t give a fuck. The model who gets overlooked drinking the blood of another model who gets noticed. There’s the woman who’s had herself essentially redone by a plastic surgeon who “pointed out other flaws in [her] body” when she went in to get her breasts reduced so she’d look more like a hanger. The woman as a Nice Guy, which, let’s just stop there for a moment. There’s a woman who plays the Nice Guy archetype. I love it! And finally, there’s the woman who LITERALLY eats Jessie in a desperate hope to become desirable as a model again. And the celebrity photographer finally chooses to see her after the cannibalism! And yeah, the cannibalism is horrific but so’s the constant affirmation of a woman’s worth being only in her looks. The movie uses the modeling world as an easy setting where it can make these points grotesque but it’s not like general society doesn’t agree with a lot of the things that are presented as horror in this movie. And to me, that’s kind of amazing.