A schism moment in a film about change.
The Neon Demon is Nicolas Winding Refn’s version of a fairy tale. It features a young pauper who’s really a princess – Jesse – it takes place in a magical kingdom – Los Angeles – and it comes complete with jealous stepsisters, spells, and dramatic transformations, but alas, no Prince Charming to save the day. This is a fairy tale in the old-school sense, one that seeks not to entertain but caution, one that takes a real evil inherent to our world and augments it into something allegorical.
At the film’s approximate mid-point, we’re treated to a fairy tale inside this fairy tale, a modern-day Cinderella moment where the shy, unwanted girl is instantly transformed into an icon of beauty, and also an object of covetous, ravenous desire. This moment is depicted in a four-and-a-half-minute runway scene that contains no dialogue, only haunting, tinkling tones and a barrage of imagery and color. It’s a scene I believe to be the film’s most pivotal moment in that it acts as an instant character chrysalis: Jesse enters this scene as a naïve caterpillar, barely aware of the scope of her potential, but she exits the scene a fully-formed butterfly, something beautiful and opulent and fragile in an intoxicating way. What happens in-between is how the change occurs.
First though, a little narrative refresher: after signing with a modeling agency, Jesse aces her first professional audition and lands a gig walking in a show for famed fashion designer Robert Sarno. On the day-of, as he’s preparing the models backstage, Sarno makes a gut decision to have Jesse walk to close the show. This is a very prestigious promotion, especially for a young model making her runway debut.
The show begins. Jesse’s all nerves at first as the other models drift out onto the runway. She closes her eyes to steady herself. This is where her chrysalis begins. When she opens her eyes again a moment later, the other models, the crowd, they’re gone, all she sees in front of her is an unfocused darkness occasionally lit by lens flare, presumably the flashing bulbs of the fashion press removed not by distance, but rather by a measure of consciousness. Then Jesse notices something flickering in the darkness. It’s the image of a point-down triangle made of three smaller triangles that she saw earlier as an hallucination after the Sarno casting call and a run-in with Sarah in the ladies room that ended in a tiny bit of blood-sucking on that other girl’s behalf. The triangle is a symbol of change, of transition; it is also representative of a doorway or a nexus point between places or, in this case, conditions of being.
The scene at this point is colored cool and deep blue, soft, giving off a tranquil vibe. As Jesse hones her focus on the triangle image, this tranquility overtakes her. Secure in herself, she starts to walk, emerging from a doorway that itself is yet another triangle. As she nears the end of the runway, the triangle image occupies even more of her focus, it grows bigger, rises up to meet her, and fills the entire screen as well as Jesse’s perspective, causing her entranced expression to change to one of muted shock bordering on fear.
The next thing we see, Jesse is staring at herself, or rather three of her selves: another standalone version and its two reflections. All of this is occurring in Jesse’s mind, but fro conceptual purposes, I believe based on the angle of the reflections that Jesse is seeing this “new” self in the center triangle of the triangle image, the one that doesn’t actually have any sides but is formed of the negative space left open by the other three smaller triangles that form the larger image. But wherever this “new” Jesse is, it’s a prism-like structure where the configuration of her two reflections in the top half of the frame and her lone figure centered in the bottom half mimics a triangle positioned point-down.
As for this “new” Jesse herself, she’s no mere reflection, she is autonomous. From her narrow eyes and slim, stoic lips, she is also bold, sultry, and confident, almost frighteningly-so. “New” Jesse goes to kiss one of her reflections – the one on the right – and the “real” or “old” Jesse flutters her eyes closed. This is when the actual transformation within her chrysalis begins. We see “real” Jesse standing in front of the triangle image, hypnotized she seems, then the screen flutters to black.
A second later we’re with Jesse again, “real” Jesse, but she’s different. Most notably, she’s now cloaked in a murky red light instead of calming blue. It’s a predatory color, an exotic color, a dangerous color. Her expression matches this mood, and the slight, smooth way she’s moving her head is serpentine, like she’s sizing up prey. The “new” Jesse and her reflections in their prism are also cast in red, but a red interrupted regularly with flickers of blue. This is the transformation occurring. “Real” Jesse shown now in red, along with her altered disposition, indicates she’s ready to change, and the flickering light with “new” Jesse in the prism – blue representing old self, red representing new – indicates the personalities are switching.
Like an inverse Snow White or Aurora, “new” Jesse seals this spell with a kiss, first the reflection to her left (sinister) side, then to her right. “Real” Jesse watches like an aroused voyeur until both kisses are planted, and then it is done. Only one Jesse remains, still drenched in red, and she has assumed the boldness and confidence we saw in her other self, she has emerged from her trance as the stronger persona.
She backs away from the triangle image, now neon pink, and watches as it recedes into her subconscious. Then she turns and walks up the runway towards the triangular door, pink as well and reflected in the runway to resemble a shimmering diamond. As Jesse enters this diamond a swirling neon pink mist fills the frame, clouding our perception. Thus the spell is cast. The pauper is now a princess, the girl now an icon.
We see Jesse a beat later in the next scene as she’s coming through a gold curtain, parting it into a triangular opening, and everything about her – her eyes, her expression, her body language, her energy – is different, more mature, more suited for the cutthroat subculture of which she’s now a member. The change was real, and it continues.
In a most basic description, the runway scene is one side of Jesse meeting her other, more-realized self – the self she considers to be her best version – and then becoming her. It is such a total transformation that it almost plays like someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder (what used to be called “Multiple Personality Disorder”) seen from the inside as one persona willingly submits control to another. As this “new” self, Jesse is above all else more confident, which increases her already overwhelming allure. Unfortunately, this increased allure dooms Jesse by making her more of an object of desire to Ruby and more of a threat to Sarah and Gigi. Jesse was never going to survive this world, she was too beautiful for it, but the real tragedy of The Neon Demon – the real caution tucked inside this fairy tale – is that on the way to her inevitable demise, Jesse was seduced into thinking she could not only survive, she could rule, by a bolder version of herself who she was able to inhabit for a while but never permanently support.
Among other things, chrysalis a process of beautification, but in some cases that beautification is a weakening process, it comes with an increased fragility and a decreased lifespan. Nothing beautiful can last; that is, in part, what makes it beautiful, its rarity. What we need to recognize is that chrysalis doesn’t just change the thing cocooned, it changes the perceptions of all who see what emerges. Sometimes these changes are complementary, and sometimes they are not. In the case of The Neon Demon, the chrysalis might have changed Jesse for what she thinks is the better, but even more significantly, it changed those around her for the worse, it augmented their most primal tendencies as it augmented Jesse’s most beautiful. In wilds like these, though, beautiful things are devoured everyday. Humanity is cruel like that.