On Horror & Selling Beauty in The Neon Demon & The Eyes of Laura Mars

neon demon models in white room
A model casting call. Screenshot from Neon Demon, Gaumont/2016

Horror movies have often been relegated to the sphere of low culture, associated with monsters and ghosts, violence and destruction. But these films can also offer new ways to conceptualize issues and imagine solutions to social problems. Through fantastical figures, horror can signal warnings about social ills, sometimes providing clarity on — or at least a subconscious connection to — social anxieties and psychic despairs. They offer us a language with which to examine society’s deepest longings and fears, transmuting them into something that, divorced from their original context, we are finally able to contend with.  

A popular subgenre of horror film, psychological horror, offers a similar metaphorical understanding of social ills. These movies can depict mental and emotional fears in ways that can offer a sense of the lived experience of systemic violence and trauma. Further, movies like Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Get Out (2017) raise and answer questions about gender, sexual, and racial inequities. In these examples, the protagonists push back against oppressive individuals and systems, what feminist film criticism has argued to be a powerful shift in cultural representations. 

There are also films that help us grapple with the limitations of our mainstream cultural ideas. Rather than offering positive images, these function as a warning and a much-needed challenge to the dominant power structure. In what follows, I will show how two psychological horror films set within the modeling and fashion industry confront and interrogate pervasive social myths about women and beauty. Made decades apart, The Neon Demon (2016) and Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) explore the process by which our society elevates women’s bodies, only to exercise a violent scrutiny upon them. Through the cultivation of this ideal, fashion peddles an intoxicating illusion that women are “empowered” by their ability to duplicate what they see in popular imagery. These films showcase women grasping for the counterfeit power promised by this ideal, ultimately losing, and thus exposing the vicious reality that bodily autonomy is never fully won, but must constantly be pursued. 

The Violence of Fashionable Beauty

A scene opens onto a young woman lying dead on a silk chaise lounge. Her head rests at an unnatural angle on its edge. She is surrounded by a brocade wallpaper, saturated with hues of blue and violet. Her fuchsia eyeshadow and lipstick are punctuated by sequins. Her eyes are otherworldly, large, empty; her lips are parted in invitation. She is inert, blank, demanding nothing. She appears almost synthetic, her skin made up to imitate plastic. Blood drips from her throat, pouring down her arm, and pooling onto the floor. 

There is a man near her. He is shrouded in darkness. He circles her as if she were prey. As the camera pans out, flashes of light indicate that we are witnessing a photoshoot: the woman is a model and the man is a photographer. 

This is the opening scene of Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. These initial shots set the tone by highlighting the violence behind fashion photography’s consumption of the distorted and violated female form. It is this pairing of beauty and sexualization with destruction that is central to the film’s thesis, highlighting the notion that the body on display is in a continuous state of peril.

In Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, a survey of the history of models and modeling, Michael Gross quotes famed mid-century model Dovima as saying of her career, “‘I began to [have] the idea that I was a photograph… a plastic image’.” Dovima here conveys the disconnect that forms between the body and the self, as the body is plagued by the excessive scrutiny placed upon it in order to create an ideal image. 

It is an image predicated on a sickening homogenization, a pattern revealed in The Neon Demon in a scene where the main character, Jesse, is at a casting call held by a designer. The room in which the call takes place is a blindingly white, industrial space, filled with columns and harsh lighting that create seemingly endless symmetrical rows. It is a room devoid of warmth or character, large and empty but for the models that inhabit its center. All the models sit in evenly-spaced white chairs, some leaning against the pillars, on display in undergarments and high heels. They are mere form, symmetry, and beauty — a symphony built on repetition. They are angular. Theirs are severely rigid and controlled bodies. They are as blank as their surroundings, without differentiation or identity, awaiting the approval — or dismissal — of the male designer, the only person in the scene with any agency or authority. The space mirrors the enforced emptiness of the models inside of it; bodies there for someone else’s scrutiny and edification.

The Neon Demon displays models as nothing more than an endless parade of available flesh, flesh that can be moulded by plastic surgeons or designers to be or mean anything, primarily for others. It is this repetition of form that divorces the bodies from any kind of interiority and instead aligns them with the objects they are selling. 

The Dangers of Fashion Photography

Eyes of Laura Mars, decades before The Neon Demon, similarly critiques the photographic and aesthetic processes which plague the body with violence and make it an object of desire. In this earlier film, Faye Dunaway plays the titular role of a fashion photographer, whose images serve as explorations into sexuality and violence. For Laura, the display of the body and violence are inextricably linked, as they are in real life, or so she asserts. Her photographs are a mirror of the violence of the contemporary society she inhabits, which she draws upon in order to sell the fantasy and luxury of fashion.

Paralleling the opening of The Neon Demon, Eyes of Laura Mars begins with a gallery showcase that presents the title character’s images of women. In one photograph, a woman lies naked beside a swimming pool, her body prone and lifeless. The view of her head is blocked by a column and a large German shepherd stands over her, plainly symbolizing a pervasive danger. She is mere flesh, a body that has been stripped of its context, of its identity, perfectly sculpted yet compositionally decapitated. In this photographic moment, she becomes the ideal, the body desired yet uncomplicated. 

The opening shots of her photographs make clear that Laura’s work is always characterized by violence. In these photographs, the body is disassembled just for the trappings of luxury. The film illuminates the fashion industry’s repeated use of the idealized body as an object with which to model merchandise while also subjecting it to torturous extremes.

Laura Mars is not concerned with the inner lives of her models or with the process by which they become subsumed by the image, an image that has been cultivated by a largely male power structure of photographers and designers. As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” Within this process, the woman’s image is no longer her own, but a carefully cultivated perception of an ideal. Her autonomy is violated, her identity is nullified.

Beauty, Social Currency, and Dangerous Desires

Both The Neon Demon and Eyes of Laura Mars illustrate the often dangerous function of beauty within our society: it affords a person both social and cultural currency, but it is a dangerous and unsustainable kind of power. With it comes the danger of being contorted, fragmented, or having the body appropriated through another’s perception of you. The Neon Demon follows Jesse, a 16-year-old aspiring model played by Elle Fanning, whose very career in film and as a model is the embodiment of our society’s fetishization of a very specific kind of beauty — one that is white, waifish, and based on extreme youth. Jesse’s enigmatic beauty inspires everything from admiration and lust to jealousy and violence. 

In the film, everyone wants to be close to Jesse. She radiates the kind of perfection that provokes jealousy and wariness from more established models. She is new to Los Angeles, alone, and forced to fend off predators of all kinds, from the leering photographer to a sleazy hotel manager with an interest in his younger female occupants. In this way, the film exposes the ways in which the female body, with the fashion industry as a microcosm for the larger society, becomes an object in constant peril. 

In the end, Jesse is killed and consumed by three women — two models and a makeup artist — who bathe in her blood in order to possess her and her beauty. For Refn, this is the ultimate conclusion for an industry that has made Jesse into an object to possess, an object whose sole currency is her beauty. It is the ultimate manifestation of the veneration and degradation that the fashion industry foists upon the female body — a body that will be desired, but only if it is able to contort itself into the industry’s own very narrow notions of beauty and femininity. 

Eyes of Laura Mars presents similar commentary on an industry that treats women’s bodies as functions of commerce. Through her photography, Laura Mars mimics the violence she sees around her to make a statement on society. She is a commentator. When a serial killer begins targeting her models and associates, her photographs become a reality: the killer uses her images of the fragmented body to carry out their crimes. As a photographer, her vision gives her power, but it is also her vision, wrested from her control by a killer, that leaves her powerless to the larger implications of her photographs and the violence they enable within the world. 

Illusions of Power

In both films, protagonists Laura and Jesse are able to seize a degree of power. However, this power is shown to be unpredictable, mediated by violence and derived from a system that seeks their oppression. For Jesse, beauty gives her a degree of power and status. Because of it, people gravitate to her. It sets her apart, giving her access to rarefied worlds. But because of the importance placed upon it by others, it is ultimately the thing that destroys her. 

Similarly, Laura fails to assess the limitations of her particular subject matter and the fleeting power given a woman working within patriarchal structures. As a successful creator, she is afforded a degree of power by existing institutions. With this power, she replicates the ideal that they are promoting. It is a power that only gets her so far, a power that becomes useless when the violence of her photographs is harnessed against her. We, as consumers of media, can become similarly intoxicated by these images, believing that if we replicate them, we can break out of the uncomfortable realities of daily life within our society. 

The expectations of beauty and femininity that are circulated through fashion images, like the ones made by Laura and populated with an endless parade of women and girls like Jesse, force women to contend with an excessive scrutiny of their own (and others’) bodies. We are peddled this intoxicating illusion of power, of false control, that whispers to us that only once we look a certain way, or have a certain dress, will we feel satisfied and at peace with ourselves. 

We enact rites of violence and pain against our own bodies and minds, struggling to replicate this impossible ideal, this narrow, proscribed version of beauty and femininity that leaves room for nothing but imitation. We are told that achieving this beauty will give us power, will make us desirable but it just takes us further away from ourselves. We lose all knowledge of the enjoyment, pride, and solace that can be found within our bodies as we are forced into an endless cycle of imitation in a futile attempt to find ourselves. 

This empty power mirrors the lack of autonomy that women fought against in the 1970s and that we continue to be faced with even today. From the Texas abortion ban, passed this last September, to the continuous barrage of #MeToo revelations, it becomes clear that women are still not in control of their own bodies — that comment, control, and coercion are still the norm. We are sold power in the form of beauty even as our autonomy is being actively taken away from us. Eyes of Laura Mars and The Neon Demon set up a framework for thinking about issues of bodily autonomy and power by examining the repercussions of this contorted female body, a body that is sold to us as beautiful and alluring; that is sold to us as empowerment.

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