With his new movie, The Neon Demon, writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn told BuzzFeed News he wanted to make “a horror film about beauty.”
He more than accomplishes that horrific goal thanks to the film’s jaw-dropping and blood-soaked final act. It features a troika of women (Jena Malone’s Ruby, Bella Heathcote’s Gigi, and Abbey Lee’s Sarah) brutally murdering young model Jesse (Elle Fanning), devouring her flesh, and bathing in her blood in hopes of metabolizing her youthful appeal. And that doesn’t even get into the shock of seeing Hank (Keanu Reeves) force a hunting knife into Jesse’s mouth before he murders a 13-year-old runaway; a lovelorn Ruby pleasuring herself on top of a dead person; and Sarah swallowing an undigested body part (which Gigi vomits up before slicing her own stomach open with a pair scissors).
Part psychedelic fable, part cautionary tale, and part unapologetic celebration of ego, The Neon Demon follows a Southern-born 16-year-old aspiring model, Jesse, as she arrives in Hollywood, where her dreams are quickly realized. And perhaps a little too quickly, as her youthful spirit and stunning good looks begin to warp every person she comes into contact with: from doting makeup artist Ruby, to intimidating photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington), to the older models Sarah and Gigi, who consider Jesse’s insta-success a commentary on their fading appeal.
As is the case with so many horror movies, the visuals are as striking as they are disturbing and the message more nuanced than one might assume at first blush. Refn was interested in exploring grander themes in his story, like how Jesse’s beauty was coveted and commoditized by those around her. In order to illustrate that relationship, it was essential that the screenplay depict narcissism as a weapon rather than as an Achilles’ heel. As Refn describes it: “It’s the idea that beauty devours beauty."
Thus, the film’s final act is the series of increasingly shocking acts surrounding the murder and literal consumption of the intoxicating ingenue. For instance, after Ruby has finished eating Jesse’s body, she’s shown lying naked, writhing in the moonlight, as the camera swirls around her body and a torrent of blood is expelled from her vagina. The moment was born out of a collaboration between Malone and Refn: Ruby was originally meant to die much earlier in the film, but Refn was so taken with Malone’s captivating performance that he simply didn’t want to kill the character. “Every hour I was coming up with different ideas, and I said to Jena, ‘What if this is some kind of ceremonial ending, and in the end, all of this was for some kind of cycle? The idea of purity, virginity, something feeding through you,’” Refn recalled.
While the impromptu change would throw many actors, Malone said she signed on to do the film expressly to go on such a journey with Refn. “I don't really do films because I liked a character or because I liked a script,” Malone told BuzzFeed News. “For the past four or five years I started to base [my choices] on director, because a good director will take anything and make it interesting. And you have to just believe in them and their vision. Once I figured out what he was doing with this, I gave him — wholeheartedly — everything that I could in the sense of shaping Ruby.”
With Malone game for the scene, they first choreographed the intimate camera movements. “I said, ‘Why don't you lie naked and I'll have the camera move in between your legs?’ And she was like, ‘OK!’” Refn continued. With that permissive spirit permeating the set, Refn began to think about ways he could take the scene even further. “That's when I came up with the idea of blood: She would menstruate again because the idea of a cycle repeating itself or coming to closure is very supernatural. And that became the ending for her character,” he said.
“She's like 300 years old and this is like the 80th woman she’s done this with,” Malone said of her character’s ritual.
While Ruby’s finale is a pleasurable experience for the character, the same cannot be said for Sarah and Gigi. The film’s last sequence, set on the opulent lawn of a gorgeous Malibu mansion, finds the model duo styled for a high-fashion gig when Gigi is suddenly overcome with sickness. After she runs inside, Sarah goes to check on her and finds her sweating, screaming, and heaving on the plush white carpet, and, in a moment that shocks both girls (and, frankly, the audience), Gigi vomits up Jesse’s eyeball whole, as if Jesse’s essence is now rejecting its new host. Refn said Gigi’s attempt to absorb Jesse’s youthful, effortless beauty was doomed to fail, reinforcing an assertion made by a fashion designer (played by Alessandro Nivola) earlier in the film: “You can always tell when beauty is artificial.”
Writhing in pain, Gigi tries to cut the rest of Jesse out of her stomach and ends up killing herself in front of Sarah. As her eviscerated friend lies dead before her, a surprisingly nonplussed Sarah reaches down, grabs the eyeball, and swallows it. Like Ruby, ingesting Jesse’s body parts seemingly has a positive effect on Sarah, implying that she is either used to this routine or that she’s more mentally, emotionally, and culinarily prepared to do what “needs” to be done in order to thrive in an unabashedly youth-obsessed culture.
“We shot a lot of takes,” Refn said of the eyeball scene, adding that Lee — who is also a fashion model in real life — was “very excited” to shoot it. The ocular regurgitation, however, proved more difficult for his actors to nail on camera. “I think I shot that about 25 times. [Heathcoate] had to throw up every time. It was hard.”
The Neon Demon bowed on May 20 at the Cannes Film Festival and elicited strong responses from the audience; BuzzFeed News film critic Alison Willmore called it “a bloody-mawed catfight on hallucinogens.” When the time came for the MPAA to assign the film a rating for American theatrical release, the organization urged certain edits in order to avoid the dreaded, financially destructive NC-17 rating.
But those suggested changes actually had nothing to do with the film’s blood-soaked finale. Instead, the recommendation was that the writer/director trim another one of Malone’s more incendiary scenes: Ruby masturbating on top of a nude female corpse. About two-thirds of the way through the film, at her side gig as a funeral cosmetologist, Ruby seeks solace at the morgue after (the still-alive) Jesse rebuffs her aggressive and unwelcome sexual advances. What begins as a simple kiss with the dead woman quickly escalates as Ruby mounts her, spits in her mouth, caresses her breasts, and pleasures herself to climax as she weeps.
The kiss was the only element of that sequence that was originally in the script, according to Refn — but, before she even stepped onto the set, Malone knew the scene would be heightened. “Nicholas purposely under-writes so an actor can over-write. I knew it wasn't just a kiss. I knew going in it would be more,” she explained. She and her director quickly developed a connection during rehearsals, so Malone felt she had an unspoken sense of what Refn truly desired from the moment. “I went in and said, ‘Just let me have the first take.’ By the end of the first take I was crying on top of her and realizing how lonely this character really was. I don't think I had fully comprehended how deeply Ruby needed to be loved until I climbed on top of a dead person and [tried] to feel that love. Once I got into it, I realized that was really a scene about loneliness and this intense need to be touched and desired and that's the means to the end of beauty: What is beauty without the beholder? It's nothing. It's dead on the table.”
According to Refn, the MPAA asked for a general paring-down of the scene and for the amount of “wet sounds” to be reduced. To the Danish director, the request came as something of a shock. “I never imagined it would ever be an issue,” he said, with genuine incredulity in his voice. “Where I come from, sexuality is never something to be worried about. Physical violence in Scandinavia is much more of a taboo than any kind of sexual content. In this country, the vagina is still such a horrifying symbol, apparently, that they don't know what to do other than to panic, which is kind of weird because [the vagina] is the center of the universe. It’s the most important, unique, beautiful creation God's ever done.”
Luckily, Refn felt he could accommodate the MPAA’s requests without compromising the cinematic integrity of Ruby’s desperate act, and the film earned its R rating. While American audiences will have to wait for a DVD/Blu-Ray release in order to see Ruby’s controversial act as it was originally designed, the director is glad international audiences will see the scene in its entirety in theaters. And at the end of the day, in his mind, that constitutes a win. “I come from a very feminist country [and] I'm married to a very feminist woman — but it proved, again, the fear of female sexuality is still such a taboo. So I'm always happy when women gain more power, and if I can contribute to a little bit of that, I'm very, very content.”