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Depraved Fable: Nicolas Winding Refn’s (NWR) The Neon Demon


Watching The Neon Demon it’s apparent that NWR films use the real world as a portal to a surreal and mystical one. To view The Neon Demon as purely a metaphor for the fashion industry and the currency of beauty is far too dismissive and literal. Refn’s work, particularly The Neon Demon, functions as parable. There are moral or spiritual warnings at play in his works that blur the lines of space, time and form. In a work staged in an identifiably modern Los Angeles, beauty is currency and therefore power. NWR glides from reality to unruly, sacrificial and ancient acts.

NWR’s style and form in The Neon Demon echoes the sensual and seductive literary style of poet and writer Angela Carter, who famously brought the perverse sexual subtext out of fairy-tale texts in her novel The Bloody Chamber. NWR sees these, the manifestations of demonic energies as the shadows of his characters. Settings are shrines and the characters place themselves as offerings to forces of the world or nature. The structures beautiful wallpaper, dividing dimensions. Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack is a landscape, it’s the seasons of night and day, it’s the beat of a frenzied heart, and it’s the warning glances of crystal chimes and the hypnotic toe tapping thuds charge the stillness.

Renowned post-structuralist Derrida in his famous lecture “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (presented at Johns Hopkins University in 1966) discussed the about the “chicken or the egg” of attempting to qualify individual symbols in art when meaning changes in your consideration of the whole work. Derrida went on to say that a study of “myths poses a mythological problem” and proposes that, “when we think we have disentangled them from each other and can hold them separate, it is only to realise that they are joining together again, in response to the attraction of unforeseen affinities.” The work of NWR feels like he’s an artist that verifies Derrida’s discourse. The sooner that you’re applying tangible meaning to a symbol in NWR’s work, you find yourself at odds with the transitions between reality, allegory, dreams and other dark manifestations.


Elle Fanning’s Jess is an illustration of this conundrum. Fanning does a wonderfully precise job with the transformation. Jesse is the archetypal beautiful Middle American gal coming to L.A to make her fortune because she’s beautiful. She’s the one in a million that most girls dream about being. With perfect features, proportions and her age (sixteen that she’s forced to round up to nineteen) she attracts the attention of the most cynical patrons of the fashion business. When she embraces her elevation you watch her shed the skin of the innocent ‘out-of-towner’, into a force of abject beauty that looks to dwarf all of those established models around her. Fanning’s Jesse is possessed. After a mountain lion makes itself at home in Jesse’s motel room and sleazy motel owner Keanu Reeves’ Hank and his offsider are forced to remove it; he dubs her the ‘Wildcat.’ *cue Speed flashbacks* Hank curses her for leaving the window open for the wilderness, in the form of the big cat, to stalk in. Jess leaves the window open to be consumed, she lets her moral guard down to become the predator and then prey. Her actions that follow see her strut with the confidence being at the apex of the Hollywood food chain.

Jesse’s coalition and competition in the film too wrestle literal and metaphysical forms. Jena Malone’s desperate make-up artist Ruby; Bella Heathcote’s manufactured beauty Gigi and Abbey Lee’s glacial Sarah have a dark prophecy to fulfil and the script by NWR, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham layer humanity in the forms of insecurity and anxiety on the characters like plaster. Ruby is enveloping and parasitic; wielding the tools to frame beauty intimately close while being forced to be imperceptible. Gigi is the beauty dethroned; posturing herself as royalty while espousing every clinical modification, she’s undertaken. Sarah is a cynic. When she realises her destiny she assumes the cyber punk fashion and sociopathy of The Terminator.

What is it to be consumed? What is to be ‘natural’? What power does beauty wield? Whatever the question NWR crafts a sensual and scary metamorphosis, with the elusive power of folk tale.

Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman 



Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn & Mary Laws &

Polly Stenham         


Elle Fanning …         Jesse

Karl Glusman           …         Dean

Jena Malone  …         Ruby

Bella Heathcote       …         Gigi

Abbey Lee     …         Sarah

Desmond Harrington         …         Jack

Christina Hendricks           …         Roberta Hoffmann

Keanu Reeves           …         Hank

Charles Baker          …         Mikey

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