A few months ago, I watched my first Nicolas Winding Refn film, Bronson, and marvelled at the fact that Refn presented us with a naked Tom Hardy that wasn’t terribly sexualized. That in and of itself was a feat, and I’d wondered what he could do with the female form in a similar fashion. Then I caught Neon Demon and realized that this pony definitely has more than one trick to it. Through use of the character Jesse (Elle Fanning), he manages to both sexualize and neuter the character, while also going after the power of the female body via her impact of other characters.
Fanning’s Jesse is an ideal on a pillar, simultaneously sexual and virginal. Jesse possesses an almost otherworldly quality: beautiful, tall, slender, young, and doe-eyed. All that encounter her – from makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone, who was divine in this film) to rival models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) to photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) – become entranced not just by her beauty, but by her essence. In a room full of beautiful women, Jesse makes everyone else quietly sit up and pay attention. Jessse doesn’t need to have sex with anyone to land gigs; she just has to show up and look pretty. The character is no dummy, telling potential love interest Dean (Karl Glusman) that she knows she’s not talented or particularly brilliant, but that she’s pretty and she “can make money off of that.” While everyone around her clearly lusts after her and wishes to possess her, Jesse does not show inclinations toward sex other than wanting to verbally/socially fit in; even then, her participation is minimal and unconvincing. When we actually witness someone coming on to her, the activity is forced and unwanted, whether it’s the nightmare sequence of motel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) forcing a knife down her throat or the throwing off of Ruby as she attempts to initiate sex. Jesse functions outside of the sexual realm, despite that she’s a lustful object. Precisely that: Jesse is a husk that declares the feeling of being desire to be “everything,” leaving little room for development as a being that can appreciate the physical and emotional implications of the act. As more time progresses, she grows to embrace her status as the most desired thing in the room, which leaves little room for a sex drive. Jesse doesn’t need sex to help convey a sense of undying love or to help her gain access to a goal, or even to achieve a sense of physical pleasure – she is asexual in this sense, functioning as a decorative piece that serves as a point of pride and projection to the observer.
In this respect, it makes total sense that Ruby, Gigi and Sarah kill and consume her, which leads to the most impactful moment of the film in terms of the female body. After consuming something that is not sexual and exists merely for looking pretty – what some narrow-minded jackholes think of as the ultimate woman, who is not interested in fucking someone else or having terribly deep thoughts – the three women appear content and physically renewed. In one instance, Ruby lies in the moonlight, naked, with her legs spread wide apart. As she lies on the floor, blood flows freely from her vagina, mimicking the menstrual cycle which has terrified cultures for eons. The consumption of Jesse’s perfect physical body brings about natural order. Fun fact: the moon is typically associated with not only the menstrual cycle, but female sexuality and birth as well. Hence, the greatest power of the female body comes in the realm of nighttime and blood. It’s a natural process, not something to be feared: it’s a cleansing of the old, that which cannnot sustain life inside of the womb; it’s the making way for a new chance at forming a viable life. The menstrual cycle begins on the first day of menses, marking the blood gushing forth from Ruby as a beginning as well. It’s a new possibility of life; it’s the start of the capability of the female body by offering a fresh place to live, by forcibly cleaning out the old. It’s a sign of youth, fertility, and the inevitable power of nature. In one fell swoop – a good 45 seconds of screentime – Refn manages to take something that most adult men fear and flips it back into a point of power for a woman. It’s nothing to fear; Ruby is not in pain, and actually appears to be having quite the good time. This isn’t an act of aggression; it’s the body using the perfect ingredient to cleanse itself to make way for optimal use. That’s empowerment.
Thus, Neon Demon gives us several logical conclusions:
- Jesse’s status as the apotheosis of beauty and desirability renders her unable to live. As the youngest and most alluring of the bunch, she burns brightly, but briefly, marking her as a sacrifice for the continuing life cycle of others.
- The fact that she’s relatively asexual and virginal reinforces her sacrificial role, rendering her the simultaneous pride and punishment for the community.
- Jesse’s body functions as fuel for other women, who must violently murder, dismember and eat her, then bathe in her blood in a type of Elizabeth Bathory ritual to infuse themselves with her essence. She can’t exist as a person, which calls out the notion of an ideal woman – those who are ideal run the risk of becoming means to an end, without the benefit of individuality.
- Ruby’s naked bathing in the moonlight reclaims the menstrual cycle as a powerful symbol of female sexuality, ripping it as a fear-mongering, subversive taboo from the oppressive patriarchy.
Really, I’m slow-clapping Refn on this one. I didn’t think he’d be able to top making Tom Hardy a living, asexual statue in the same flavor as a piece of Greco-Roman art. He had to go and not only condemn beauty without feeling, but also give power back to women in the face of intense, wide-spread fear concerning the female body. For once, this girl is speechless and smiling. Well done, sir. Well fucking done.