Young girls in middle-of-nowhere European villages used to be told that if they were beautiful enough a Prince would find them, take them back to his castle, and they would live happily ever after. Change Europe for America, the stories for magazines, the Prince for an agent, the castle for Los Angeles. You now have the quintessentially American fairytale that is Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016). (Even the “Neon” in the title could be an update of the colour typically used in the titles of fairytales.) Indeed, The Neon Demon is nothing less than a slick, sick modern fable laced through with the imagery of fairytales and myths. But these fantastic reference points have gone under the knife; disguised in Americana they are made fresh again.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a small town sixteen-year-old who has “It.” Whatever “It” is the audience can’t see, but when she moves to LA she’s the fairest in the land. She walks into the room and jaded agents turn their heads, everybody wants her; it’s almost preternatural. Naiveté and isolation put her at risk, she has no family, something strange is going on at her skeevy motel, and her closest friend wants more from her. When she falls in with a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), and her model friends she begins to embrace her beauty. But the beauty industry proves to be still more sinister.
“Beauty Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing,” an admiring fashion designer purrs at Jesse. This philosophy is also inherent to the film itself: this is a movie about surfaces, not depths. The characters are flat, and to criticise them for that misses their intentional superficiality. What personality did Cinderella or Rapunzel have, other than being the fairest of them all? The dwarves are better defined than Snow White. Fairytales have always given us blank slate characters so that anyone can insert themselves into the story. Modern advertising often flirts with a similar self-insert strategy. What really sticks with us about fairytales is the imagery: a glass slipper, a red hood, a poisoned apple. The Neon Demon is going for the same effect, as images and symbols are continuously prioritised.
The opening shot of the film is of Jesse spattered with blood and sprawled out on a sofa. In this piece of tonal foreshadowing, she’s playing dead for a photo shoot. It evokes a death-like sleep, a familiar fairytale motif from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Critics have repeatedly described The Neon Demon in the language of sleep: ‘hypnotic’, ‘dreamlike’, ‘hallucinogenic’, and ‘etherised’ are commonly trotted out. Perhaps it’s the recurring use of the moonlit, blue-tinged LA evening that infects the minds of viewers. Even indoors this feeling is echoed by a blue neon glow that suffuses nightclubs, runways, and even bathrooms. Whether a few scenes are dream or reality is utterly unclear. In fairytales, sleep is often a form of submission; the damsel is helpless until actively kissed by a prince. In The Neon Demon, beauty starts off as a passive submissive quality, it inherently objectifies a person. The moment Jesse steps onto the runway she has accepted her beauty, making it active and narcissistic. At this point, dangerous red-neon replaces blue. Starting the film with an image that evokes Snow White only makes Jesse’s transformation into a dominant Evil Queen all the more apparent.
Animals have long served in fairytales to symbolise human qualities. Cats are wily, wolves are sexual predators, bears take on protective familial roles. Authors seeking to reinvent the fairytale have exploited this animal coding; in Angela Carter’s The Tiger’s Bride the titular animal is a shorthand for aggression and mysterious orientalism. In the Neon Demon a mountain lion breaks into Jesse’s motel room, where it lithely leaps from wardrobe to bed. It moves regally but with feminine grace, the cougar’s muscles ripple under its skin and you can almost smell its musk. It is everything Jesse aspires to be: confident, beautiful, sexual, powerful. And as a symbol it is as distinctly American as Carter’s tiger is Asian. As a symbol, it does not lack for threatening qualities either. It is no coincidence that Ruby’s house is later made to feel threatening through the questionable decorating choice of taxidermized big cats. Jesse has entered the lion’s den. Some commentators have taken this connection further, suggesting Ruby is a witch and the mountain lion was her familiar.
I disagree that Ruby and her model friends are literally supposed to be witches. The film seems to deliberately evade such simple interpretations, although it does nonetheless draw from witch folklore. Tradition holds that there are always three witches: mother, maiden, and crone. The maternal Ruby is the coven’s mother. The younger of the two models, Sarah, is the maiden of sorts with her natural beauty. The older of the two models relies on plastic surgery for her looks, a nod to the ageing crone. The witch interpretation can be seen in the film’s most commonly recurring symbol, a triangle formed by three smaller neon triangles. Just as three witches make up a coven. Its internal lines are reminiscent of the pagan pentagram or pentacle. Like these pagan symbols the neon triangle can be inverted, to point down to hell instead of up to heaven. In the symbolically pivotal runway scene Jesse walks out of a blue triangle facing upwards and stares at visions in a downwards facing triangle switching from blue to red. In this moment, Jesse’s narcissism has toxified, her rise to stardom has become a descent into hell.
One of the elements of the film that feels most like a fable is the relationship between the characters and the moon. A potent symbol of witchcraft and femininity, the moon is almost a background character in its own right. Its light shapes the twilight feel of the film and the film suggests that the moon interacts with the characters in mystical ways. In one of her rare moments of self-awareness, Jesse talks not only about how people stare at her, but how even the moon seems to draw closer to her. The implication is that her beauty is so powerful that even the moon admires her. It is no coincidence that a fellow model compares Jesse to the sun in winter. Refn seems to be deliberately alluding to ancient mythologies of a relationship between the sun and moon. Once Jesse’s beauty has been stolen, its new owner performs a ritual in front of an engorged full moon, it now draws close to her beauty instead.
As for the film’s end… Well, if you haven’t seen it I won’t spoil it for you, and if you have I doubt you’ve forgotten it. Something happens that would be at home in the darkest versions of Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood. The final scenes look a little like a Lady Gaga video but Refn’s reference points are borderline medieval. The Brides of Dracula, Elizabeth Bathory and Snow White’s evil queen are all visually referenced—symbols of powerful beauty, vanity, and corruption that have stood the test of time.
Mat Farrell is a Hull history graduate. He researches and writes for a project on Doncaster, his hometown, in the First World War. He’s a huge nerd for horror films and musicals, and is a reluctant member of his local running club. You can find him on Twitter at @MatFrl