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.”


  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