[The following contains spoilers for The Neon Demon, and descriptions of violence.]
Nicholas Winding Refn may be one of the most singular and bullheadedly determined directors currently working, for better and for worse. His past three films have all been garishly-lit grotty portraits of the underbellies of seemingly glamorous lifestyles in major cities, with most of the variations being minor deviations in framing and storytelling rather than aesthetics. He’s hellbent on chasing his every single thought down the neon-soaked rabbit hole of his camera lens whether people like it (as most seemed to with Drive) or not (Only God Forgives has mostly been rejected, somewhat unfairly).
With that in mind, The Neon Demon has both a lot going for it and against it. Refn’s previous films illustrate that he’s very good indeed at what he does, but The Neon Demon’s shift in direction is towards a feminine perspective (specifically in relation to the cutthroat world of female models in Los Angeles fashion), which Refn has mostly omitted from his prior work. Instead, he’s opted for a hyper-stylized, fetishized view of masculinity that reads very easily as queer. So, how does the traditional Refn gaze work when applied to a story that’s inseparably about women and femininity? Well, the results are nothing if not interesting, particularly as applied to the character of makeup designer Ruby (played by Jena Malone).
From the moment she comes onscreen, Ruby immediately registers as queer. She’s introduced in an unintentional(?) staring contest with Elle Fanning’s wide-eyed Jesse in a room with mirrors on both ends (“Occupational hazard,” Ruby quips), and sensually cleaning off Jesse’s fake blood makeup in a focused take so long it borders on uncomfortable. Any chance that this could be written off as unintentional subtext is erased in the next scene, where Ruby, in the midst of bathroom mirror conversation with models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) about the tendency of marketers to name lipstick after either food or sex to make it sell better, she applies lipstick to Jesse while cooing “Are you food? Or sex?”
This kind of eroticized, fanciful view of female friendship/connection is one that many male directors default to when they either have no idea what they’re doing (see: Showgirls) or can’t control their boners (see also: Showgirls). But The Neon Demon feels too much like a lucid dream for this to be the case, with its half-whispered, half-crisp line reads, lusciously detailed set design/cinematography and stately pace creating an atmosphere where everything seems almost a little too deliberate for Refn to have lost control of himself. The one time the film nearly goes the traditionally fetishistic route, when Ruby attempts to have sex with Jesse after she’s escaped her scuzzy rapist-owned apartment, the scene is shot mostly from an antiseptic distance, emphasizing discomfort rather than sensuality. This is probably for the best, as the scene quickly turns nonconsensual and Jesse pushes Ruby away.
To further distance the film from the idea of using lesbian sex for purely erotic purposes, Refn follows the aforementioned scene with Ruby’s handling of Jesse’s rejection in a decidedly un-erotic fashion: by having sex with a woman’s corpse at her second job as a morgue makeup attendant. This scene is easily the film’s most controversial, and has prompted many viewers to just dismiss the whole film outright. And yes, it is sensationalistic in a way the film perhaps didn’t need when it’s already so committed to its tawdry-glam aesthetic. It isn’t, however, there purely for the sake of shock. Refn pointedly cuts between necrophilia and fleeting images of Ruby’s thoughts of Jesse reclined on a couch in lingerie as if to say “Oh, I’m sorry, did you want to see hot girl-on-girl action? Too bad. Fuck you.” It’s not the most subtle statement, but sometimes blunt instruments are the most effective.
At the risk of being far too immediately accepting of lesbian necrophilia (perhaps I’ve watched too much American Horror Story), I’d also like to posit that Ruby’s sex scene is also a twisted metaphor for the experience of being queer in L.A. Stick with me, I have a point to make.
Throughout the film, heterosexuality is consistently reinforced as both an unfortunate norm and a weapon to keep women in line. Jesse’s curdlingly sweet short-lived “romance” with Dean (Karl Glusman), Alessandro Nivola’s pompous fashion designer directly tying standards of beauty to patriarchal heterosexual male desires, Sarah’s trenchant remarks about “fucking your way to the top” (as a woman, with men and only men): all of these are paraded across the screen with a wink and a bloody grin, with Jesse and Dean’s scenes in particular coming off almost as parody from the wonky dialogue to the almost bored way Refn shoots them.
Ruby, on the other hand, remains on the edges. In the aforementioned (pivotal) early bathroom scene where Jesse meets Sarah and Gigi (who are both ostensibly straight) at a club Ruby brought her to, Malone reads Ruby’s lines about lipstick marketing sardonically, disdain creeping into the edge of her voice. This stands in sharp contrast to Heathcoate’s reading, which is bright and bubbly, without irony. Ruby sees the heterosexual norms of L.A. for the artifice that they are, but Gigi embraces them without thought. Even more pointedly, as the conversation shifts more towards sex (of the heterosexual variety), the dynamic of the scene shifts away from a Jesse-Ruby-Gigi triad towards a Jesse-Gigi-Sarah triad, Refn slowly phasing Malone out of the camera’s eye as the scene goes on. You almost forget she’s even there until Ruby pipes up, suggesting that they leave. Ruby knows she doesn’t belong, but assimilation isn’t a viable tactic for her. Her living situation in the film, house-sitting a gigantic empty mansion with no mention of a permanent home, emphasizes loneliness and outsider qualities, a loneliness that many queer people can relate to. So when Ruby ends up straddling a dead naked woman while fantasizing about the girl she couldn’t have, I was indeed revolted at the transgression, but also oddly moved by it.
It’s important to note how important Jena Malone’s performance as Ruby is to the character. Another actress might have gone more nakedly for camp, playing up the lascivious elements of the character (on its face, the character reads more than a bit “predatory lesbian”), but Malone infuses her with a sadness thinly disguised by forced perkiness that the script only hints at. Her pained expressions in the morgue scene, her wistfulness in contrast to Heathcoate and Lee’s stone-faced expressions when she mentions how Jesse “has that thing” about her, her tortured, guilty stare as she corners Jesse at the climax: all of these bring Ruby to life in a way that’s surprisingly unique, rendering her almost a tragic figure rather than a sneering villain.
Even her ultimate fate reflects that loneliness. In the film’s last twenty minutes, Ruby, Gigi and Sarah kill Jesse, bathe in her blood, and eat her to obtain her youth and beauty. Where Gigi is blasé and Sarah is bloodthirsty about the act (at least at first), Ruby seems to be merely along for the ride (as evidenced by the aforementioned expression). In the scene after Jesse’s death, we see Ruby still soaking in Jesse’s blood, her face contorted with discontent, sharply visually separated from Gigi and Sarah as they wash away Jesse’s blood, determined to move on with their lives. The implication is clear: Ruby knows she can’t just force herself to conform to their standards of beauty, desirability and desire. That’s why her death is rendered in such a dreamlike, serene fashion: she lies naked in the moonlight (which had earlier been established as Jesse’s symbol), blood flowing from between her legs in a manner suggesting childbirth, a blissful expression on Malone’s face. She welcomes death, as it’s the only way she can escape the heteronormative constructs she’s been forced into. It stands in sharp contrast to Gigi’s violent self-mutilation with scissors upon throwing up one of Jesse’s eyeballs, which brings the film’s points about harmful patriarchal heteronormative standards of beauty home with a bloody splat.
I don’t mean to say that The Neon Demon is a “progressive” text, not really. It’s too in love with its own trashy excesses for that. But it does have far more to it than just a wall of blood, bright lights and bare breasts: I found meaning in its (perhaps not entirely intentional) examination of queer loneliness and exclusion. I’ve been in Ruby’s shoes before, and I worry every day about the Rubys of the world, who only hurt themselves by trying to “fit in.”