Fashion’s always had a vaunted place in cinema history with designers like Irene and Adrian on a first- name basis with audiences. It’s only been a recent phenomenon that the women wearing the clothes have taken on an added legitimacy with models like Iman appearing in No Way Out or Emily Ratajkowski making her big-screen debut in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Models are mainstream despite Hollywood’s mixed relationship portraying them. With the recent trailer premiere of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, a tale touting an entry into the seamy underbelly of the modeling world, is the model movie seeing a resurgence? And what does it say about a media continually attacked by regular women for promoting unhealthy lifestyles? Will The Neon Demon break the mold or simply dish out more of the same?
Outside of the images in Refn’s trailer there isn’t much known about The Neon Demon other than it follows aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) whose “youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty- obsessed women.”
The model movie is a relatively underseen genre, usually inhabiting the same space as movies about the fashion industry like The Devil Wears Prada or The Eyes of Laura Mars. For these films, the model is nothing more than a cog, a walking representation of the final product of the main character’s industry. The model is something to make fun of or lampoon in these movies, never driving the narrative itself. The 1940s and 1950s featured several model movies with women playing fashion plates modeling outfits in department stores – a lucrative job for women during those times. These films, like How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Funny Face (1957), saw modeling as a means of finding romance; the ladies will leave the job as soon as they get that rock.
The majority model movies out there emphasize two things: a model’s thinness and their stupidity. Anne Hathaway’s Andie Sachs of The Devil Wears Prada only watches models pose during her tenure at Runway magazine, but other characters continually reiterate that in the fashion world Andie is too heavy. Despite looking like Anne Hathaway, she’d never be a model. And model movies haven’t deviated from that trend. Actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer have called out marketing campaigns and Hollywood in general for their perpetuation of unrealistic body images; the model movie both fits right into the Hollywood dream factory paradigm while looking like a figurehead of a different time and The Neon Demons cadre of skinny blondes doesn’t look, on the surface, as if it’s going to start something new.
From an opposing gender perspective, there’s Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander in Zoolander, a male model dim-bulb whose persona is meant as a satirical jab at the fashion industry. Considering Zoolander is one of the few, if not only film touching on male models, it stands as an outlier that male models aren’t even worth talking about, that they don’t exist. Audiences, particularly male audiences, don’t want to see male models as there’s no added sexual component for them.
That’s because most female model movies are about ogling bodies, beautiful bodies swathed in gorgeous clothes. Hollywood makes fun of models for being dumb, but audiences eagerly consume them for their beauty. It’s why someone with no previous acting experience, like Ratajkowski, can seamlessly segue from video vixen to movie star. Audiences consume female actresses’ bodies, and a model is simply a paid representative of that. They get paid to walk down a runway, so it stands to reason those audiences assume it’s a natural transition to standing in front of a camera; both modes rely on getting paid for bodily consumption, but the darker side of the spectrum is the literal demanding of female flesh like with the nude photo leaks of countless female celebrities.
Often female model movies are relegated to the comedy genre, again because models are perceived as dumb. Those rare expectations of drama and tension include dark cautionary tales involving drugs and death (Angelina Jolie in Gia) or the supernatural. The latter is where Neon Demon looks to fall, and the best example in this genre is Michael Winner’s 1977 film The Sentinel.
The Sentinel follows a mentally fragile model (played by Cristina Raines) getting the apartment of a lifetime that just happens to be the portal to Hell. She’s forced to confront her personal demons – much of it stemming from Catholic guilt – before giving herself over to a life of solitude and piety. For Winner, the world of modeling is cautionary, but more obliquely. Modeling is a career with a shelf life and women are forced to do whatever they have to to stave off the ravages of time. For The Sentinel‘s heroine, the confusion stems from giving up her career to settle down with her boyfriend and a life of solitude and religious fervor acts as both penances for a sinful career, as well as acknowledgment of time’s passage. The two-scene appearance of fading beauty Ava Gardner only enhances this feeling of beauty’s ephemerality, something that most model movies work with. Refn’s film continues this concept of female competition with a group of women intent on “devouring” Fanning’s babe in the woods.
Predominantly directed by men these movies depict modeling as generally leading to a life of sadness and competition with other females in a blind devotion and obsession with perfection. Works like The Sentinel and, though not in the modeling field but exhibiting the same tenets, Flesh and Bone, Suspiria and Black Swan involve lithe and gamine beauties compelled by otherworldly forces and their egos doing battle against others who want to take their crown. Both Sentinel and Suspiria involve older women controlling and manipulating young women for their ghoulish purposes – possible revenge for their missing youth? Black Swan, on the other hand, sees Natalie Portman’s ballerina struggle against her fears as well as a better competitor in Mila Kunis’ Lily.
The model becomes another woman on a pedestal, beautiful and perfect but with a fatal flaw, usually of the otherworldly variety. Modeling, a world of perfection, beauty, and glamor, becomes accessible because it’s tragic, repelling audiences interested while drawing them in. Despite perpetuating negative body images, critiquing females and their relationships, it’s seen as a way of life for the industry, and those aspiring to it can get a glimpse of what they’re in for. The beauty of a model makes them the picture of perfection; even their fatal flaws allow the male viewer to be drawn in and intrigued. They may end up six feet under, but at least they had fun doing it.
Nicolas Winding Refn could do something completely different with The Neon Demon. Maybe he’ll give us a cadre of women who aren’t desperate to rip out each other’s throats for a Lagerfeld dress. Or the older women will become allies to our young heroine, uninterested in feeding her to the proverbial wolves. But if history’s any indication of the model movie in the future. It’s not looking too good despite how gorgeous it all is.