The tortured artist, in which an artist or performer seems willing to sacrifice almost anything to achieve perfection, is a common trope in film. Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, and The Neon Demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, are two films of the past decade that capture the horrors of attempting to achieve perfection in a culture obsessed with beauty.
Check out the trailer for The Neon Demon.
The Neon Demon (2016) brings the viewer into the modeling world of LA through our fish-out-of-water character, Jesse, played by Elle Fanning. She harnesses true, natural beauty and allure—the “it factor”—which could rocket her to modelling stardom. Upon her arrival in this new world, Jesse is confronted by three women who embody different types of beauty: Ruby, a make-up artist who bestows beauty; Gigi, the manufactured beauty who flaunts her plastic surgeries as accomplishments; and Sarah, the aging beauty who recognizes her time in the spotlight will soon end. Almost inevitably, Jesse falls down the rabbit hole of modeling and becomes the titular neon demon, the self-obsessed model: she embraces her own allure in a striking scene that echoes Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection.
The earlier Black Swan (2010) follows a similarly obsessed woman, Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, in her desperate desire to secure the role of the Swan Queen in her company’s production of Swan Lake. Nina is confronted by two types of ballet dancer: the aging and no-longer relevant dancer her mother represents and the younger, lively Lily (Mila Kunis). Nina fears mediocrity and is threatened by the embodiment of the Black Swan, evident not only in Lily’s dancing but also in her energetic and playful personality. Ultimately, Nina must become Lily, must become the object of her envy, in to secure the role and deliver the perfect performance.
Both films harness oxymoronic titles that reflect the impossible desires of their leading women. The models within The Neon Demon are obsessed with retaining youthful beauty, a hopeless goal. The dancers within Black Swan are obsessed with one, specific role in a single stage production. Just as the models are only able to walk the runway and pose for designers while youthful, the dancers grace the stage only for their performance in one, fleeting moment. Perhaps most interestingly, from a visual standpoint, both films blur the lines between reality and fiction as Jesse and Nina sacrifice parts of themselves in the hope of achieving fame and recognition. Only in discarding their innocence can they win acclaim fame in such cutthroat industries. However, it’s unclear which portions of their transformations are “real” and which are dreams or hallucinations.
The cinematography in The Neon Demon constantly keeps the viewer guessing whether Jesse is awake and experiencing something horrible or having terrifying realistic nightmares, many of which happen in her motel room. Some moments, including when Jesse sees hands pushing through the wall or when she wakes up to a knife-wielding man in the middle of the night, are never fully explained.
Similarly, Nina begins seeing a double of herself, a sinister side of her personality manifest in reflections and passersby, and even the paintings in her house morph to reflect a dark change within her mind. After the women undergo psychological transformations brought on by insecurity, they are forever changed for the worse.
Both films also brilliantly shift the male gaze to that of the female. The predatory looks of photographers, fashion designers, and the dance company director are shifted to the desiring, lustful, envious, and fascinated gazes of other women. This shift is where the divergences of the films occur. In Black Swan, the female gaze is that of Nina’s as she wants everything that Lily has, to the point of wanting to BE Lily. In The Neon Demon, there are two female gazes directed at Jesse: the gaze of the three women in the modeling industry and the additional self-reflective gaze. Ruby, Gigi and Sarah look upon Jesse with varying forms of desire: a sexual desire, a desire for the attention she is receiving, and a desire for her youthful beauty, respectively. At the same time, Jesse gazes upon herself as a desired object, finding a confidence and narcissistic attraction that she previously lacked. However, the three other women have a collective power over Jesse, and they do everything they can to stop Jesse’s ascent to stardom and propel themselves further into their own inner neon demons.
These films beg the question: who are the real villains in this type of psychological horror film? Are the villains the women who will stop at nothing for their own personal gain? Or is our culture the villain, demanding that women stay beautiful and young, inevitably pitting them against one another and even against themselves? Or perhaps, there is no villain and that’s what makes these films somewhat unique in the horror landscape. These two examinations into the pursuit of perfection reveal the costs of such endeavors, and, ultimately, those who suffer the most are the ones who lose themselves in the process. That is the true horror of The Neon Demon and Black Swan—the horror of sacrificing everything that makes you who you are until you’re unrecognizable and have pushed away those who truly care about you. Neither film gets this point across particularly gracefully, but it is clear that looks most certainly can kill…just not who you’d expect.
Katie Lizza is pursuing her Master’s Degree in American Studies at Lehigh University. Her interests lie in understanding the historical and cultural connections of the horror genre and she can be found on Facebook.