Witchcraft and Film as Ritual in The Neon Demon

When Nicolas Winding-Refn announced The Neon Demon, he described cannibal supermodels, taking inspiration from the Hungarian Countess, Erzsebet Bathory (who is also the basis for many vampire myths). Of course, if you’ve seen the film that’s obvious, but what I saw was a ritual. Each stand out moment fits perfectly with the concept of witches performing an invocation of a demon – one that will grant them eternal beauty and power. Believe me, this is no Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922).

The film opens with a shot that will stick in your mind – Jesse (Elle Fanning) laying “dead” on a couch, with her throat cut, lifeless. She is reminiscent of a sacrificial lamb, cleansed of her previous life. Brooding photographer Dean watches over her from behind his camera, for he is the initiator of this innocent girl’s slaughter, which is in turn the start of her modelling career.

It is after this extended pan out shot that we meet Ruby (Jena Malone), a seemingly harmless, if not overly kind and nurturing makeup artist. She cleans Jesse of the fake blood, symbolic of the washing of a dead body in preparation for its journey into the afterlife. It is here where Ruby convinces Jesse to come with her to a party, after witnessing the young girl’s purity and beauty.

This is where Jesse meets fellow models, and two-thirds of the coven (with the third being Ruby), Gigi and Sarah. They study Jesse, figuring out just what Ruby has brought for them. Despite Jesse’s attempts to keep up with the three women, her youth, vitality, and most importantly, virginity is obvious. The trio understand the part this young girl will play in their ritual. They take Jesse to a room where there is a kinbaku (Japanese rope bondage) show. In what I deem to be my favourite film scene of the year, these beautiful women are transformed into monsters by strobing red and white lights. This is not only hypnotic to the viewer but to the innocent Jesse also – the three witches have her firmly in their grasp.

After being signed to a modelling agency (in a scene with the criminally underused Christina Hendricks), Jesse is sent to meet Jack, a photographer who is clearly inspired by the more unsavoury characters within the real LA modelling industry. She meets Ruby there again, and when Jack calls for the set to be closed, Ruby tries all she can to be allowed to stay – she does not want her treasure to be defiled. Still, Jack sends everyone away, and when it is just him and Jesse in the studio, he orders her to strip. At this point, the audience expects Jesse to be sexually abused or worse, but in fact, the photographer covers her in gold paint with his hands, an act that is far more intrusive and uncomfortable than anything else that could have been imagined. Painting Jesse gold essentially turns her into an idol, or a ritual tool, metallic and divine, almost like a statue of a deity. When she leaves this shoot, Ruby is waiting for her, and tells her to stay away from Jack – this is Ruby claiming her property.

Following this, Jesse goes on a date with Dean, the photographer from the first scene. She tells Dean that when she was younger she would talk to the moon to help herself fall asleep. She lifts her arms in a shot that makes it appear as though she is cradling the moon in her hands – if you are familiar with Paganism or Wicca – this seems to be Jesse ‘drawing down the moon’, which is the first step in any ritual. When Jesse returns to her motel, there is a mountain lion in her room, which at first consideration is surreal, but when you think of the film as a supernatural horror, it can be interpreted as one of the witches using the animal (an ability that witches were often accused of) to check on the girl.

It’s now that we get a flash of the animal nature of Sarah (played by the enthralling and alien Abbey Lee), who upon being ignored at a casting (with Jesse getting the job), smashes a bathroom mirror in anger. When Jesse checks on her to see if she is okay, she accidentally cuts herself on a shard of glass, triggering Sarah to pounce and attempt to drink Jesse’s blood. It seems she cannot wait for Jesse to fulfil her ritual purpose, and foreshadows the young girl’s demise.

And now, for the main event, the invocation of The Neon Demon. It is this point, where Jesse closes the show, which signals a shift into the second half of the film. We become trapped in a hallucinogenic trance with Jesse, in which we see three of her (a recurring number in Pagan mythology), as she shifts from doe to demon. She kisses her reflection, displaying a sexuality and confidence she never had before – she is tainted now, she is powerful. The motif of triangles is almost prominent in this sequence, symbolic of Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi – the women Jesse has been captured by.

After the show, Jesse is an entirely new woman, she keeps on her makeup and heels, knowing that she is everything. She tells Dean to leave, erasing her love interest from the picture, because she can have anything she wants, and now she knows it. Upon returning to her motel, Jesse has a premonition of seedy motel owner Hank (Keanu Reeves) forcing a knife into her mouth and throat – an act that embodies the demons tendency for sexual violence, something that is to reoccur multiple times before the film closes. Jesse wakes, and upon hearing someone attempt to get into her room, she barricades herself in and is forced to listen to the beating and rape of the girl next door. She calls the only person she thinks she can trust – Ruby – and asks if she can stay with her to avoid danger. Little does she know she has fallen directly into the coven’s trap, and the possibility that the noises heard through the motel wall are a part of their plan cannot be disregarded.

Ruby takes Jesse in, comforts and dresses her, leading her to assume she is safe from harm. It is at this point we realise that Ruby has more deviant intentions, when she attempts to have sex with Jesse. The demon spirit is so powerful with Jesse as its conduit, that even Ruby cannot resist. Angry with herself, Ruby goes to work – with her second job being a makeup artist in a mortuary. If you’ve heard anyone talk about the film, it’s probably been about this scene – yes, the lesbian necrophilia one. Ruby pleasures herself atop a female corpse, and molests the cadaver before her. Editing suggests she is thinking about Jesse as she does this (we see Jesse caressing herself and looking into the camera) – but this could also be an indication of Ruby being a succubus, sexually influencing Jesse remotely.

After this, the demon within Jesse is at its strongest. She parades around the manor she and Ruby stayed in, putting on makeup and wearing nothing but a slip – the total opposite of the barefaced and modestly dressed girl we meet at the beginning. Upon Ruby’s return, Jesse makes her speech which proves the invocation is complete – she tells Ruby that everyone else is just a second rate version of her. With this she steps inside, leading to her being chased by Sarah and Gigi, and climaxing with Jesse plummeting into the empty swimming pool, her twitching broken body being looked down upon by the coven, and her beloved moon.

It seems the whole point of this ritual was to absorb the demon’s powers through the flesh and blood of Jesse. We see Ruby bathing in blood, and whilst we do not see it, we know that the women have eaten Jesses body parts. This is almost like communion, you take some of the deity into yourself when you eat the bread and drink the wine.

There is a scene following this which is never quite explained, when Ruby lays naked in front of her window, with blood flowing from her genitals. It appears as though she is birthing something before the moon. To again refer to Pagan mythology, Ruby is the Mother – with Jesse being the Maiden, and Sarah being the wise and everlasting Crone.

I assume that Sarah is the crone as she seems accustomed to the process, and it benefits her (meaning she could be any age), whereas Gigi (Bella Heathcote) is overcome with guilt, vomiting an eyeball and committing seppuku with a pair of scissors in order to get Jesse out of her. Sarah merely looks on, sheds a single tear, and goes back to her shoot. She is cold, experienced, and her emotional stress throughout the film suggests she is tired of repeating this ritual process over and over again.

Whether Nicolas Winding-Refn intended for the film to play out like a ritual, I do not know – it could all just be my overactive imagination and the fact I’ve got way too much of an interest in occult texts and history. But nonetheless, that was what I took from the film, along with admiration for the cinematography and the soundtrack. However, I certainly wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone unfamiliar with Nicolas Winding-Refn’s work, and even then that would be a push. That’s not to say I hated it, I didn’t – but this film is clearly style and symbolism over substance, and isn’t that what this story is all about?

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