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The Neon Demon, and how we devour our young

Chances are you’ve already seen our previous piece about Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film, the deliciously lurid Neon Demon. If you haven’t, you should go check it out — it’s really quite good, if we do say so ourselves. In it, we explored the way that the flick used and subverted gendered expectations of motivation and behavior in order to provide a more nuanced, complex look at the violent impulses that sit at the heart of the director’s oeuvre. Here, however, we’ll broaden our focus, exploring what exactly it is that Neon Demon has to say about the modern condition and the world we all live in.

On a strictly surface level, Neon Demon is a psychological horror flick that aims to show the dark side of the modeling business, following Elle Fanning’s character from seemingly innocent naif to calculating cynic to, eventually, literal food for the system she wished to become a part of. The way that the too-young, too-pretty, too-talented woman is welcomed, manipulated, exploited and, eventually, devoured by those who envy her youth can easily be understood as a not-so-subtle comment on the self-destructive nature of America’s fashion industry and its obsession with youth.

For many viewers of the film, their exploration of its themes seems to end there, which, understandably, elicits shrugs and backhanded compliments about how good the film merely looked or felt. But taking that narrow a view of a work as complex as Neon Demon is a terrible mistake, as it glosses over the much larger statement that Refn and his collaborators are trying to make about the nature of commercialized art.

The easiest read of Neon Demon sees the murderous cannibalism of Elle Fanning’s fellow models as a metaphor for the way that individuals are thrown into the meat grinder of that particular industry. If that was the case, Neon Demon would be an incredibly shallow work, on par with about a million hacky student films about how art is corrupted by money and how the big city chews up the innocent. That, however, is not the case, as what Neon Demon really does is use modeling itself as a metaphor for all artistic pursuits in the contemporary world.

The first hint at this comes from the very setting of the film. While there’s still an ingrained perception that New York City is the center of American and thus, international cultural life, that hasn’t been true in decades. Los Angeles, as the home of film and television — mediums which have long ago eclipsed print in terms of cultural cachet — is the center of the pop culture world, albeit one that is, itself, currently in a state of erosion. So, already, the story of Neon Demon should be seen as broader than just modeling.

Indications that there’s more going on in Neon Demon run deeper than just the setting, and are all but explicitly laid out in what is one of the film’s best scenes: When Elle Fanning stands on a diving board above an empty pool and reveals that she is far more intelligent, cagey, and cynical than she had appeared up until that point. She tells Jena Malone’s character that she knows what she looks like and she’s fully aware of the power that gives to her — over men and women alike. That scene is so crucial because it forces the viewer to recontextualize everything they thought they knew about Fanning’s character.

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With that scene, we learn that Fanning wasn’t a victim of the system — not yet at least — she was a willing participant in it. At every stage of the film, Fanning used people’s perceptions of her, used what people thought they knew about her, to manipulate them and carefully maneuver herself into the place she wanted to be. Suddenly, her transformation from intimidated child in a ponytail and casual clothes, to a glamorous model in a sparkly top and stunning ringlets has to be understood in a different light.

The story of Elle Fanning’s character is not one of an unsullied innocent who was corrupted by the world she wished to be part of. It’s about that character’s decision to insert herself into that world, to become a part of it, to do whatever it takes to remake herself into what that world, what that system prizes, what it values, and what it requires to keep running. She transformed herself into what the system needed, into something that is indispensable, not realizing what it was that she had truly become: Livestock groomed for the slaughter.

Because when the creative pursuits are commercialized, when art is turned into a business, it requires one thing above all else to keep the gears turning: Fresh meat. Whether you’re talking about modeling, film, television, prose, poetry, podcasts, or YouTube videos, the business of art is set up to absorb influxes of new talent, to force them to willingly homogenize themselves, to force themselves into a mold of success, just as Elle Fanning’s character did, and then, that system, after preparing that new flesh, after sending it through a meat grinder and repackaging it into clear casings like so many links of sausage — the system devours it, using it to propel itself forward and repeat the cycle endlessly, until entropy takes over.

And just like the ancient Biblical god Moloch, the system, the business of art, and the commercialization of creativity, it prefers that the flesh it devour be young. It relishes the appearance of innocence, it savors the perception of authenticity, then it swallows it down and recreates it in an even more homogenized form, just as Elle Fanning’s fellow supermodels devoured her and used her blood, her flesh, even her eyes, to better enhance their own youth, beauty, and vitality. The eponymous Neon Demon isn’t fame or youth a specific industry or city, it’s Moloch, sitting on his haunches, endlessly ravenous, ready to groom his cattle — his willing cattle — to grind them up and feed them to one another as they fight for the privilege.

Aubrey Sitterson is a Los Angeles based writer whose most recent work is the Street Fighter x G.I. Joe comic series from IDW, available at your local comic shop or digitally on Comixology. Follow him on Twitter or check out his website for more information.

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