Haunting House: A Ghost Story’s Rumination on Home

In an exclusive interview with Interiors, Contributing Writer, Willa Granger, spoke with Director, David Lowery and Production Designer, Jade Healy of A Ghost Story (2017). Photos are courtesy of Jade Healy, Andrew Droz Palermo and Bret Curry.

With every ghost comes the house it haunts—and David Lowery's recent film, A Ghost Story (2017), starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, has everything to do with the suburban ranch house that the couple inhabits. "When I was little and we used to move all the time," Mara's character "M" recalls, "I'd write these notes, and I would fold them up really small, and I would hide them." These were "things I wanted to remember, so that if I ever wanted to go back there'd be a piece of me waiting." M's childhood gesture captures the feeling we all have about the places we have lived, or are living: that the structure itself becomes a receptacle for remembrance. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard, whose 1957 book The Poetics of Space examined the phenomenology of intimate places, described the house as "an instrument with which to confront the cosmos." In many ways, A Ghost Story cinematically captures many of Bachelard's ideas, including his concept of topoanalysis: “the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives."[1] Particularly for "C," Affleck's character, his humble home reflects his cosmos, a fact that is literally underscored through Lowery's introductory shots of the starry night sky. “Ghosts are almost always confined to spaces,” the director reflects. “Ghosts have an inherent nostalgic quality, and our own sense of nostalgia often has to do with very specific places.” It is our subconscious, Lowery observes, that likely benefits from bounding those ghosts within four walls.

These notions—of attachment, memory, and home—are old hat for architectural historians. As early as 1849 John Ruskin described architecture as a "strong [conqueror] of the forgetfulness of men" for "we cannot remember without her." A forerunner of the modern preservationist, Ruskin recognized the home as having "all the record it bare of [men], and all of material things that they had loved and ruled over, and set the stamp of themselves upon."[2] Both the physical and mental space of "home" registers our own memories, but also those that have come before us: quite literally, the material "ghosts" of others, such as M's notes, hidden in nooks and crannies. "Ghosts are ubiquitous in the places in which we live," writes sociologist Michael Mayerfeld Bell, "and they give a life to those places."[3]

Whether consciously or not, we apprehend these ties to home. When C is asked why he loves his house so much, he simply responds: "history." It is unclear whether he means his own history, or that of others, but A Ghost Story, which jumps forwards and backwards in time through multiple inhabitants of this home, seems to suggest both, and the suburban house becomes a medium for those histories. According to the film's Production Designer, Jade Healy, that's exactly what Lowery and his team were looking for. "The main parameter was to find an old house that had a sense of history," Healy reflected, "A house that had seen many lives before and after C & M." Director Lowery notes how, “All my feature films to date have revolved around the concept of home.” True to trend, and especially for a “haunted house movie,” Lowery knew from the start that A Ghost Story would “be a mainline to whatever sort of thematic obsession I [had] with domestic environments.”

Much of A Ghost Story takes place within and around the young couple's house, which, significantly,  is not a manicured McMansion, but a firmly middle-class, semi-rural, mid-century tract home. The building is single-story, and its features are all too familiar, from its picture window to the paint peeling off its wood siding.  You can almost imagine the olive-green station wagon that once parked underneath the carport, or the Ambrosia salad whipped up in the dark walnut kitchen. We've all seen this house, either on small-town backroads or at the fringe of cities. The banality of the form matches the comically-classic image of C's white-sheeted ghost after his car accident. Yet the ubiquity—of both house and ghost—becomes a vessel, a blank slate able to support the memories of multiple people.

According to Healy, the production team initially found the house in "a state of disrepair," and it had to be rehabbed into something more "livable." Carpeting was removed to reveal the original hardwood floors, and the entire kitchen was built out; the ceilings were replaced, and in one instance Tom Walker, the co-Production Designer, meticulously re-glued torn-out tiling. For Healy, decorating the house meant not only channeling the tastes of M and C, but also coloring it with a hint of the "imperfect." After all, M longs to leave the space. For the scenic decisions that Lowery did not make are telling. M and C are not living in a cute bungalow, or a sleek condo—though M fantasizes for both, and at one point early in the film she cruises through real estate listings online—but rather a plain, homely place. So often the ghost trope is paired with a creepy, creaky Victorian mansion; not so in A Ghost Story.  "The house needed to feel very lived in, some peeling paint, walls that had been painted over and over again," Healy said. "Basically the house needed to have character, layers that had been built up throughout time."

Their house is not only the site of their love but also, and increasingly, the site of tension. M wants to go, C wants to stay—a rift hinted at from the movie's start, when we see M asking about movers and lugging an antique chest to the road. "The house shelters daydreaming," Bachelard writes, "the house protects the dreamer," and the viewer immediately recognizes C's inability to relinquish his space of daydreaming.[4] But after C's abrupt death, he paradoxically gets his wish by literally haunting the house, watching over his partner, her grief, her growth, and ultimately her departure. Before leaving, M writes a note, presumably to her husband, and forces it into a crack in the wall. Both C and the note haunt the house, the former patiently scratching at the wall to retrieve it. The note becomes the silent center at the heart of the film, the thing that will ultimately absolve C from his hauntings. As time progresses, C stays: terrorizing the small family that comes after his wife, observing a party of young people, and finally: the demolition of the house itself. Architectural historians have often explored the physic, communal, and symbolic impact of changes to the built environment, a question brought into sharp contrast through tragedies such as 9/11. "What happens when we leave that place, or that place no longer exists," Architectural Historian Shelley Hornstein asks. "What happens to the memory of an event if the site where that memory was recorded or is demolished, or we only know it through movies or photographs or the story someone recounted to us about it?"[5] A Ghost Story inverts this thinking by giving us the lens of Affleck's ghost to see how the site itself changes through never leaving, though his connections to the place—his love, his partner—disappear. It is the privileged yet painful perspective of the ghost to see how others memory-make within one's own space.

But even these changes will not stop C's haunting as he lives through the demolition of his home. This scene was so critical in fact that the production team sought out houses with the help of a demolition company. The violence of demolition gives way to new construction, and C floats through the growing high-rise atop his former home’s footprint. This new building swiftly emerges, culminating eventually in a vast, dystopian landscape of dark skyscrapers and neon lights. The film unfolds a spatial spectrum, from rural to urban (and back again), drawn from “what I see around me, living in Dallas,” according to Lowery, a phenomenon that he imagines is “similar all over the world.” Texas, where the film was shot, becomes a particularly acute example of this narrative according to Lowery: “Rural Texas has a very unique and striking aesthetic, and it's interesting to see modern architectural trends manifesting themselves in this landscape.” Such a narrative seems to nullify the house-as-object entirely, suggesting that our personal histories endure beyond this, and further explains the resilience of place and memory even in absentia. "Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere," Bachelard writes, "at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another."[6] Lowery suggests this same alloy, as time suddenly loops backwards to the settlers who first inhabited the site, including a little girl who, like M, slips a note under a rock. It's clear that the concept of "home" has sheltered Lowery's own daydreaming, to return to Bachelard's concept, and A Ghost Story offers a visual and poetic rumination on the intangible and abstract connections that we all make to intimate spaces.

Willa Granger is pursuing a Ph.D. in Architectural History at the University of Texas at Austin. If you would like to submit an article that looks at Architecture and Film, please email us at contact@INTJournal.com.

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994 edition), 46, 8.
[2] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1849), 164-165.
[3] Michael Mayerfeld Bell, “The Ghosts of Place,” in Theory and Society 26, no. 6 (Dec. 1997): 815.
[4] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 6.
[5] Shelley Hornstein, Losing Site: Architecture, Memory, and Place (Ashgate Studies in Architecture Series, 2011), 2.
[6] Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 6.

The Architecture of Dunkirk: Land, Sea, and Air

We’ve previously made our arguments for why we think Christopher Nolan is one of the most architectural directors of our time. In his career, he has shown an inherent interest in architecture as a whole (from his portrait of Chicago as Gotham to the works of M.C. Escher playing a major role in Inception).

The past few films have seen him go bigger, bigger, bigger; and while his previous film, Interstellar (2014), was set in space, he comes back down to Earth (quite literally), in his latest effort, Dunkirk (2017), wherein he deals with the notion of cinematic space in new ways.

Dunkirk is broken down into three parts: land, sea, and air. The film’s narrative takes us back and forth through these three “spaces,” all of which revolve around the World War II Dunkirk evacuation.

We open on the backs of several British soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk, as they come under fire from unseen German forces. We follow one young British private in particular, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), as he’s chased off the streets and onto the beaches of Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan plays with off-screen space here, never showing us the enemy, and suggesting that the threat can be much more fearful if you never actual see it, much like the shark in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).

Dunkirk is a race against time (rescuing the stranded soldiers), as Christopher Nolan cuts between land, see, and air, playing with the concept of time.

Land

Dunkirk was shot on location on the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, in the north of France. The first part of the narrative concerns itself with soldiers stranded in Dunkirk, who attempt to make their way off the land. In this sense, this portion of the film deals with escaping the space.

Sea

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The second portion of the film deals with the sea, and while the Royal Navy prevents private boats from participating in the evacuation, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) navigates his civilian ship (Moonstone) without permission from Ramsgate in England, with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan). This small 43-foot long motor yacht, built in the 1930s, becomes a primary setting for the film, as the narrative makes use of every corner of the ship. In terms of space, it’s interesting to see that Mr. Dawson uses the Moonstone to rescue sixty soldiers, while the ship was originally designed for fewer than ten passengers.

Air

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We also follow the narrative into the sky, focusing on Farrier (Tom Hardy), a Royal Air Force pilot that mans a Supermarine Spitfire. The production outfitted a Soviet-era Yakovlev Yak-52, which was roughly the same size and shape of a Spitfire. Christopher Nolan once again uses space in noteworthy ways. The original plane had two cockpits, which meant that the production could film in-flight. The crew designed lens mounts and filmed in the sky with the actor, resulting in a much more believable look.

Choreography: "Cry Me a River"

Justin Timberlake’s classic 2002 kiss-off “Cry Me A River” cemented his solo career by telling the tale of a tortured man reeling through heartbreak. Fifteen years later, choreographer Andrew Winghart created a stunning tribute in a Los Angeles warehouse, featuring a heart-broken narrator engulfed by a ‘river’ of 36 dancers.

The choreography in Winghart’s tribute, much like his choreography for the Oscars performance of the Moana song “How Far I’ll Go”, uses large scale formations and the fluidity of fabric to create an evocative and emotional atmosphere.

For the first 30 seconds, Winghart’s narrator is alone in a grand warehouse—his loneliness and powerlessness emphasized by the large empty space around him. After this initial contemplation, the dancers engulf him, the river running past him. At times, they ripple and echo his movements with stylistic syncopations, acting like the irregularities of memory. At other times, the narrator thrashes and combats the river as he is consumed by the anger and desperation of his grief. Eventually, the narrator grows strong and comfortable in his confidence, buoyed by the support of the river.

 A plan view of the performance as understood in five second increments

A plan view of the performance as understood in five second increments

Through breaking the piece into five-second increments, we can better understand the major and minor changes in sequence. The narrator has a limited path of movement, whereas the other dancers’ paths are constantly evolving and changing. Winghart refers to some of these “significant direction changes” of the dancers as one of “the most visually effective” aspects of his work. It is particularly powerful because the choreography is driven by and captured through a cinematic medium, rather than a live performance. While some of the spatial changes between sequences seem relatively minor, the use of video as medium helps to reveal their intricacies.

In these instances, the crowd of dancers execute simple choreographed moves at regular intervals, resulting in a mesmerizing fluidity that amplifies their effect. This is evident when the dancers are lined behind the narrator at 0:45, with each movement cascading down the river. As Winghart explains, “any change in direction multiplied by twelve rows creates an overwhelming and elegant effect.”

The dresses—originally designed for liturgical dancing—employ the fluidity of the fabric to soften the otherwise sharp and linear choreographed movements. While the narrator’s tight clothing stresses the constraints of his sorrow, the other dancers move freely in flowing dresses. “I have always been drawn to how long skirts echo the movement of dance,” Winghart notes, adding that “a lot of the movement in the piece was designed to emphasize the organic movement and weight of the dresses to add a kind of feminine strength.” At 1:30 the dancers jump in unison, and the behavior of the dresses creates the visual impact. Though the jump itself is quite static, the dresses’ reactions become an unpredictable and unique element that gracefully serves the piece.

A plan view of dress behaviors mapped at 1:30

Additionally, syncopations and rhythmic irregularities highlight movement by using simple motions “to create a nice effect without unnecessary distraction.” The buoyant step-touch during the pyramid’s forward movement at 2:40 becomes complex through the unevenness of the rhythm tied to the downbeat. Following in an almost liturgical approach, Winghart notes that the pyramid sequencing is derivative of “the step-touch of gospel singers.” These syncopations gain further power as they move through the 36 dresses—the river of dancers rolling and flowing behind a narrator who confidently floats atop.

More drawings inspired by the piece can be found below. Andrew Winghart is an LA based choreographer known for his unique and high energy compositions and intricately crafted staging patterns. Gabriela O’Connor is an architectural designer based in Boston. Her work continuously navigates between the architectural and ephemeral.

Music Video: Oxford Comma by Vampire Weekend

It's 2017 and we have come a long way from the boom of music videos on MTV to the not so new Digital Era. Nowadays, it is all about Online Streaming, Facebook Live and Online Music Services. We even have “Lyric Videos” for popular songs, which makes you wonder if artists are even trying anymore. Fortunately, there are some artists that still do. 

Vampire Weekend was one of the first Indie Bands that appeared in 2006. Their simple approach to music and easy going style made them popular among crowds, but it was the details of their music and image as a band that made them complex and interesting. 

Specifically, their cultural impact and the people they have collaborated with for music videos have been one of their strongest assets. Richard Ayoade is a Director that has worked on music videos for many iconic bands, such as the Arctic Monkeys, Last Shadow Puppets, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kasabian and Vampire Weekend. He has also extended his work to the cult-classic film, Submarine (2010).

"Oxford Comma" by Vampire Weekend was released in 2008 as the third single for their debut album. The music video, which was directed by Richard Ayoade, consists of one long take, a characteristic Ayoade uses in many of his pieces. In this particular music video, we see two stories developing; the band is performing the song in the forefront and the narrative is in the background. This concept is very different from how most music videos put the song in the background with the story as the focus.

The narrative escalates in the form of Chapters. In Chapter One, we see the band arriving in a car, getting out and performing. While most of the video focuses on the performance of singer, Ezra Koenig, we are able to see the other band members interact throughout the video. An example of this is the end of Chapter Two when the band comes together to perform part of the song. 

Oxford Comma (2008)

As the video continues, the story keeps developing. In the background, we see different scenarios; a group of other guitarists and a shooting sequence, until the end, when the band meets again and leaves together in the same car they arrived in, followed by a group of fans.

It is important to notice some specific points in the video. Integration, for instance, happens at different points of the video, where both stories collide and create a unique moment; these moments are the “mini-cores” of the story, making it impossible to deny either one.

In the following diagram, the complete route of the Music Video is shown and the Chapters are shown as an abstract way to understand what is really going on through the entire sequence. Space plays an important role in the development of each scene and the one continuous shot throughout the video.

The Neon Demon : Fashion, Beauty and the Space of Absolute Danger

In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre refers to fashion only in a few instances. For Lefebvre, fashion is inseparable from “abstract space”: the dominant space of contemporary capitalism, within which there is a tendency of absolute commodification. In Nicolas Winding Refnʼs The Neon Demon, the space of fashion is a subsystem within a wider abstract space. Revolving around beauty, this space is discovered by Jesse (Elle Fanning), a teenage girl who arrives in Los Angeles and embarks on a modeling career, only to fall prey to a monstrous trio of Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) – a necrofilic makeup artist and two cannibal models. Jesse’s brief but rapid success relies on her natural and surgically untouched beauty: as fashion designer Roberto Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) explains, “true beauty is the highest currency”; it is not “everything – it’s the only thing”.

More to the point, true beauty is not a matter of waistline, cup size or the shape of one’s nose. What is highly valuable is that illusive, je ne sais quoi quality. When Sarno describes Jesse, he speaks of a diamond and glass, that is, materials which reflect light and whose borders are sometimes difficult, or even impossible, to determine. For Ruby, Jesse has “that thing,” something more precious than any physical trait: her pale and clean reflection, thin looks or real blonde hair. For the followers of Jacques Lacan, that thing is something we recognize in certain subjectivities, but which is more than the subjectivity itself – it is the special glow we cannot simply define or locate in a person we find extremely attractive. The term used by the Lacanians is “object-cause of desire”: the object which is not the thing we desire but the thing which activates and sustains our desire: the thing which, due to its illusiveness, makes certain objects desirable. The object-cause of desire is dialectical: although we might recognize it in certain persons or even identify with it, nobody really possesses it; and just because of its illusive and impossible character, the object-cause of desire is so potent, driving us to extreme limits in our attempts to appropriate it. And in the interior, beauty as the object-cause of desire has a profound effect: according to Sarah, you “walk into a room, and it’s like in the middle of winter – you’re the sun.”

Fig_1.jpg

  The interiors of fashion industry are quite simple and empty. Those who want to be part of Sarnoʼs show, must first be verified through a casting, with their body being subjected to condemning or, even worse, indifferent looks. The casting is held in a slightly industrial space, with a simple structure, bright lights and a reflective floor, with the body being exhibited as a fragile form, with scarce makeup and in tight underwear. In such an ambient, you either have or you don’t have that thing; there is no confusion and everything is, of course, replaceable. Sarah’s presentation does not interrupt Sarno while toying with a handkerchief, provoking only a head shake. Later, Sarah will refer to herself as a “ghost,” implying that she was once alive, that she also had the thing with which Jesse enchants Sarno. Obsolescence is one of the driving mechanisms of western fashion and it targets, as the example of Sarah shows, not only clothes but also the body itself. Jennifer Craik has written of obsolescence as one of the driving mechanisms of Western fashion: as the example of Sarah shows, this mechanism targets not only clothes but also the body itself.

For the body, the casting is just one in a line of spaces which are to be overcome. Jesse begins her ascent in an agency, where one of her rivals does not even pass the waiting room, for her beauty is only “good,” as is the one of the other 20 or 30 girls of that or any other day. A step further is the studio, where a three-dimensional whiteness seems almost limitless, exposing the nudity as totally available and unprotected. After the casting, comes the show: for Lefebvre, abstract space is a neutral, endless plane, within which one can time and again (re)place different objects; at the same time, abstract space is highly fragmentary and, as such, hierarchical. The space of fashion frames the subjectivity through a number of separated ambients, where only a few can jump over a step or two. Gigi, for example, does not go through castings and is even allowed to pick the things she is to wear. In the space of fashion, to be isolated is a matter of outmost privilege, but also basic pragmatism, for this is a way of avoiding the interiors which are haunted by condemning looks.

            In the film, the fragmentary nature of space works in other ways too. The very moment a body enters an interior is shot from the perspective of the interior itself. The separateness of a space (often a windowless interior, one might add) is emphasized, for the immediate link with the outside public sphere is either omitted (the party Jesse and Ruby attend at the begging of the movie) or serves as a mere background (the funeral home Ruby works in, part time). In the latter case, we see the subject turning into a silhouette, merged with the darkness of the interior. The darkness swallows up the body: in the scene when Jesse enters a luxurious villa and is met by Ruby, we see the interior for the first time through a frontal perspective of a hallway, with a dark wooden floor and green walls which frame Ruby’s movement towards the gaze. The light is weak, coming from rooms on the each side of the corridor, and makes the space scarcely visible. Seen from the same position, but 90 degrees to the left, is Jesse who, as a silhouette, hesitates to enter the villa. The space she encounters is even darker and all that remains of her after the door is shut are atomized reflections of a golden blouse. In the villa, Jesse’s movement through ambients of low saturated colors and antique furniture is shot in a manner which makes the surroundings barely perceivable, otherwise treating them only as an abstract source of diffuse light. What makes the villa suspicious, even sinister, is it’s contradictory appearance. For the most part, the space is quite simple: walls serve as the background for stylish furniture and decoration, with a strong contrast between the calmness of the former and the flashiness of the latter; at the same time, darkness makes the very contact between the background and infill quite ambiguous, suggesting that there is more to this space than meets the eye, that something is lying in wait in the shadow-coated corners; that, even when Ruby is absent, Jesse is not alone.

            The manner in which The Neon Demon treats the relation between the subject and space is not always present in Winding Refnʼs movies. In Drive, we encounter a nameless stuntman and a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling). The Driver develops a relationship with Irene (Carey Mulligan), the wife of a convict, and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), taking on a role of a surrogate husband and father. We see the three interacting for the first time in an elevator of a residential building: with gilded battens and wooden panels, the elevator is warm and comfortable, as is Irene’s apartment, dominated by earthy and orange colors and with an ambient which is vernacular, ordinary and not at all burdening. In contrast with the cruel interiors of the fashion industry or the threatening appearance of the villa, Drive nourishes the subjectivity through space. Even if indirect, the light in these scenes makes the female body, her contours and eyes, gain a special and warm glow: the interiors of Drive are spaces which make it is easy to fall in love.

Also, it is worth noticing that both The Neon Demon and Drive are located in Los Angeles. Unlike the fragmentary and almost hermetic space of the former, where the public sphere is of little importance, if present at all, the latter portrays the city as highly connected and fluid. Nick Jones has shown recently that Hollywood action movies center on a protagonist’s ability to maneuver through space – in accordance with this tradition, the Driver operates and survives thanks to a highly advanced perception of the city’s logics. In the best tradition of Hollywood action movies, the Driver maneuvers through space, operating and surviving thanks to a highly advanced perception of its logics. And as a seducer, the Driver utilizes the same set of skills, cruising with Irene and Benicio the concrete banks of Los Angeles river, with A Real Hero (College & Electric Youth, 2011) playing in the background. Winding Refn might be referring to the scenes of the Terminator’s famous 1991 sequel, which is not only an action movie but capitalizes, emotionally, just on the relationship between a boy and surrogate father – a machine-protector. So, there is something quite calming in the movie: Winding Refn has described the basic idea of Drive as about a man who “drives around (…) listening to pop music.”

Quite different is Only God Forgives: the main character, Julian (Gosling), is a Bangkok drug dealer. The death of his brother, a rapist-murderer, is orchestrated by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a mystical police officer who acts as an unstoppable destructive force. The interiors of Only God Forgives are highly fragmentary, and not only due to their windowless, natural light-deficient ambients. In more than one occasion we don’t even see Chang entering a space – when the police pays Julian a visit in his boxing club, we see him leaving a gym with a glass entrance standing in the back of the frame. A few seconds later, Julian turns and surprisingly notices Chang inside the gym; afterwards, when he tries to follow Chang, Julian suddenly and inexplicably loses him – Chang is somewhere else, he is lost to us, here and now. Only God Forgives can be described as an ultraviolent neon nightmare, with Chang, the main perpetrator of brutal acts, appearing out of nowhere, turning a particular space into a reality in and of itself. At the same time, Chang’s ability to appear inside an interior, that is, the thing that makes a space fragmentary do to the absence of a moment a body enters it through a door, is the same thing that makes it, to use Lefebvre’s words, “homogenous". For Chang, nothing is unreachable; his unbridled ability to move through space is referred to when he elegantly swings a sword on shore of a small lake, moving in parallel with Bangkok’s panorama. Chang is haunting the city, leaving behind a long trail of mutilated bodies.

In Only God Forgives, the threat is concentrated in Chang; in The Neon Demon, the threat is also omnipresent, but with two major differences. The threat is diffuse, ranging from the photographer Jack MacArthur (Desmond Harrington), with whom Jesse, as Ruby warns her, should not be alone; the owner of a rundown motel, Hank (Keanu Reeves), who stalks underage girls; to the Ruby-Gigi-Sarah trio. Also, unlike Julian, who is genuinely afraid of Chang, Jesse sometimes acts as if the threat is non-existent. The motel room she uses is one of the fragmentary-homogenous spaces of the film: on the side of the entrance, where one would expect a window towards the access gallery, there is only a door and a long mirror, which allows Jesse to look at her reflection while Hank is violently trying to enter the room in the middle of the night. When he gives up and breaks into the neighboring room, Jesse does not flee immediately, listening in fascination the screams coming from the other side of the wall. Jesse is a hysteric – she is trying to be not a subject, as a complex, venerable and inherently contradictory being, but a perfect, eternal and always-provoking object-cause of desire. As a girl, Jesse spent the nights looking at the moon, wondering if it sees her. The space of fashion confirms what Jesse always sensed, namely, that although she has no talent and is unable to sing, dance or write, she is beautiful; she is one, perfect thing, she is the object-cause of desire. After she flees the motel room and arrives at the villa, Jesse rejects Ruby’s sexual advances. Ignoring what the space is suggesting, with its darkness, the leopard trophy in one of the rooms and the figure with cross-out eyes which Ruby leaves drawn on a mirror, Jesse wanders around the villa, wearing other people’s clothes and applying makeup. And just before she goes down to the empty pool in the villa’s courtyard (the same one in which she will die hunted by Ruby-Gigi-Sarah), Jesse enters a peculiar room, different than any other interior of the house. With its golden walls and sheets, yellow curtains and golden mirror frames, the room contains an elegant dress which Jesse holds up, observing her own reflection. In the mirror, Jesse is surrounded by a space which radiates – the interior supports her in the illusion: Jesse is the sun.

There is more to The Neon Demon than the space of fashion. The villa in which Ruby stays is not her own: she is housekeeping and “watering the plants,” and the door Jesse enters is suspiciously small and more suitable for servants than guests. Also, it seems that Jesse, Gigi and Sarah, as models, don’t actually possess anything of their own. Jesse signs a contract with an agency and closes Sarnoʼs show, but we don’t see her actually getting paid. Gigi and Sarah are dressed to impress, but we don’t see them buying clothes. In the movie, residential space, that crucial American class distinction, is reduced to the level of disgusting motel rooms and other people’s homes: the houses of those who are affluent enough to be away from such a luxurious place. The villa is implying a world beyond fashion. The space of fashion, and the residential spaces which occupy its flanks, are a subsystem of a wider, abstract space, in which some other, more affluent bodies dwell and operate. Just as such, the space of the movie is the destination and environment of girls who arrive from “small towns” – those forgotten parts of the US, whose inhabitants make, as Hillary Clinton observed so discriminately, “the basket of deplorables.”

Lefebvre wrote that abstract space facilitates production, distribution and consumption. In The Neon Demon, spaces produce beauty (for all the glorification of her natural looks, Jesse is rarely without a significant layer of makeup), distribute it (a body can stutter through a series of spaces or go straight to the finish line), but most of all these spaces consume beauty. This is the omnipresent, homogenizing element; from the studio to the motel room, Jesse, a small-town girl from Georgia, is constantly under the threat of being consumed, and this is something which, eventually and factually, happens. The space of The Neon Demon is the space of absolute danger. For the subject, every interior is potentially the place where she will be swallowed up by darkness, symbolically (by being turned into a ghost, a lamentable shadow of how she was once treated) or literally (through extreme violence).

The paradox lies, of course, in the fact that the thing which the predators around her will hunt to her death is the same thing which Jesse thinks of as making her all-powerful and eternal. Slavoj Žižek writes that a subject’s equation with the ideal object – the object-cause of desire – relies on the mortification of all of the traits which do not fit into this image (Jesse describes herself as beautiful, and nothing else). For a subject to be equated with the ideal object – the object-cause of desire – she must mortify all of her traits which do not fit into this image (Jesse describes herself as beautiful, and nothing else). But those who recognize her as ideal also want to mortify her, even if this means eliminating her physically. The message of The Neon Demon is a simple one: beware of the spaces in which you are seen as the ideal object – these are the spaces in which people will mortify you, in an attempt to take just the thing you have recognized as the inseparable part of yourself.

Aleksandar Kušić is an Architect and Assistant Professor at Belgrade's Academy of Fine Arts and Multimedia (ALUM). If you would like to submit an article that looks at Architecture and Film, please email us at contact@INTJournal.com.