The Neon Demon: shining a strobe light on narcissism

Josh Larsen

There’s a lot to make your head spin in The Neon Demon, a new film about a 16-year-old girl named Jesse (Elle Fanning) who arrives in Los Angeles on her own with dreams of making it as a model. But what I’ll remember most is the lighting.

As its title indicates, neon plays a central role in the film — as it did in Drive and Only God Forgives, the two previous movies by director Nicolas Winding Refn. These films portray worlds of lurid beauty, in which the glow and thrum of colored fluorescence create an aura of tantalizing menace.

Consider an early party sequence, in which Jesse and two older models watch a bizarre, strobe-lit acrobatic performance. The dark room is intermittently lit by flashes of illumination, and in those bursts we see Jesse smiling in childlike glee. The older models — whose big eyes and long limbs recall a pair of praying mantises — watch Jesse with predatory gazes. Her youth and beauty is a threat to them.

Their fears prove to be well-founded, as Jesse almost instantly captures the attention of prominent photographers and designers. Her rise is distressingly ambiguous: even as the film recognizes the way fashion can artistically enhance God-given beauty (the stunning makeup is overseen by Erin Ayanian, while the costume design is by Erin Benach), it also suggests how emphasis on appearance can corrupt one’s sense of self. If Jesse begins the film as a fresh-faced girl confident in her own beauty, she slowly becomes a narcissistic goddess whose entire personhood is defined by the ways others respond to her physicality.

Jesse’s self-coronation takes place in what could be called the movie’s Narcissus sequence. Onstage at a fashion show, where the darkness is illuminated only by strips of blue and pink neon, Jesse soaks in the attention and begins to feel her power. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier then launch into a psychedelic fantasy, in which Jesse enters a triangle of neon and mirrors. Looking meaner and more confident than before, Jesse gazes at herself in the mirror — her pond — and kisses her own reflection. Unlike the film’s earlier party sequence, in which Jesse was an appreciative spectator, here she claims her place as a divine object of worship.

This is a level of adoration that we were not created to receive.

In a recently concluded series of essays on Christopher Lasch’s book The Culture of Narcissism, Mockingbird Ministries’ Michael Nicholson writes that “the pathological narcissist has an exaggerated sense of self-importance, but requires attention, admiration and even envy to bolster his self-esteem…. Narcissists see others, and the world, as mirrors reflecting their own ego needs.”

Nicholson goes on to cite Martin Luther’s description of sin as incurvatus in se — the self turned inward on itself. Nicholson writes: “The serpent told Adam and Eve they could be their own gods, making the rules by and for themselves … We are all self-absorbed ‘gods’ of our own universes; spiritual black holes trying to draw all things to ourselves, and from which nothing escapes, especially not light.”

In The Neon Demon, narcissism doesn’t absorb light, but emits a warped and ultimately violently reflective version of it. Jesse is compared at one point to the sun, and at her most embellished — with liquid gold dripping from her skin or sparkle-sprinkled makeup on her face — she reflects the flashes of the cameras that are clamoring for her picture. She’s blinded even as she blinds us. This is a level of adoration that we were not created to receive.

The Neon Demon wants us to be both distressed and dazzled by Jesse’s presence. Indeed, Refn might not be as suspicious of narcissism as I am. At a post-screening discussion I attended, he alluded to narcissism as a “virtue,” but didn’t expand much on the thought. Certainly his other films — largely violent explorations of male savagery — suggest a filmmaker with limited moral curiosity.

Yet The Neon Demon, which climaxes in a burst of gonzo gore that’s as outrageous as anything Refn has ever done, ultimately registers less as a celebration of narcissism than it does as a horror show about the self turning inward on itself. When the film’s strobe lights stopped flashing and the soft glow of the theaters lights came on, I was mostly left thinking about the sad, desperate ways that we created beings try to siphon away God’s praise.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Theology