It’s a common image in cinema: a beautiful, but vulnerable woman entering a cold and unforgiving world, where good bone-structure and talent become dangerously interchangeable. While navigating the leering male gaze and sometimes heartless competition of female peers, she also must do battle with her own insecurities and self-doubts, all of which can be seemingly cured with the miraculous kiss of success. But for some, that success can lead directly to their downfall. Sometimes, the consequences can even be lethal, the adversary too ruthless to be conquered, and the beauty is left to rust in tragic defeat. And sometimes, it’s more painfully simple. They merely want to cut the poor girl’s throat.
The Neon Demon, the spellbinding new film from director Nicolas Winding Refn, is now playing in theaters nationwide. The plot follows Jesse (Elle Fanning) a 16-year-old girl who arrives in Hollywood with dreams of becoming a successful model. She’s quickly on the fast-track to fame and fortune, but runs into conflict with the jealousy of the women around her. Despite some divisive reactions from critics — our own review and subsequent discussion provides two ends of the spectrum — The Neon Demon feels to me like a welcomed return to form for Winding Refn after the puzzling peculiarities of his previous work, Only God Forgives.
In the wake of The Neon Demon‘s release, we decided to take a look back at the numerous cinematic incarnations of the death of beauty, whether by vengeful murder, or by her own heartbroken hands.
Please enjoy the list, and recommend your own suggestions in the comments below.
All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an aspiring actress with a touching sob-story, is invited into the world of Broadway star Margo Channing (Bette Davis), quickly becoming her personal assistant and protégé. Doting on Margo with the careful attention of a nursemaid, Eve slowly insinuates herself with the actress’s friends and co-workers, slowly revealing herself to be a ruthlessly ambitious woman with lofty career goals. It isn’t long before the actions of this duplicitous up-and-comer nakedly expose the unchecked insecurities of everyone she encounters. Even Margo’s advancing age presents an impending career problem, a fact which could prove beneficial to the conniving Eve. Stylishly conceived and scripted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve is every bit the scathing masterpiece it’s acclaimed to be. It’s no spoiler to state that Eve will, in more ways than one, succeed in her attempt to usurp the famous Margo Channing, as the film opens with this reveal. The real fun lies in witnessing all of the psychological games and back-stabbing betrayals Eve orchestrates with a cunning and ruthlessly skillful mind.
Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg)
Two Americans live in Vienna during the Cold War. Alex (Art Garfunkel) is a well-known psychiatrist, who meets Milena (Theresa Russell) a boozy free-spirit at a party. They soon begin an affair, but their relationship runs hot and cold, a problem seemingly caused by Milena’s promiscuously wandering ways. Or is it? Filtered through a characteristically fractured narrative from master filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, we see only Alex’s thoughts and attitudes expressed, trapped inside his limited perspective, only permitted to see his side of the story. He blames Milena for every failure in their relationship, viewing his former love as a beautifully crazed object of his affection, and his alone. Roeg’s film jarringly reveals a yawning chasm of male insecurity in this erudite friend of Freud, a man who endlessly forces psychological criticisms onto the woman he loves, all the while casually reminding police after her suicide attempt: “I’m not her doctor.” No, he’s not. Alex wishes only to be her possessor, to tame and control Milena, instead of understanding her.
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
It’s a mistake to value success over all else, including your own well-being, which Nina (Natalie Portman), a skilled ballet dancer at a distinguished NYC dance academy, learns with devastating consequences. In the running for the next Swan Queen in a much anticipated production of Swan Lake, Nina must not only best her competitors, but her relentless inner demons which often take hold. The ballet director (Vincent Cassel) can see the pure, virginal White Swan in Nina, but the Black Swan, the darker side, eludes her. Off stage, Nina will see things that are not there, hallucinations which become increasingly difficult to surmise from reality. As an on-stage performer, Nina is all heart. She bears herself so wide-openly that even the slightest criticism can reduce this brow-beaten perfectionist to shreds. The obsession with succeeding eventually leads Nina to disconnect entirely from reality, a step unfortunately necessary for Nina to transform into the elusive Black Swan.
The Congress (Ari Folman)
As the career of actress Robin Wright sinks into unpopularity, she receives a once in a lifetime offer from Mirimount Studios. For a hefty fee, Wright (playing herself in this witty satire) will allow her likeness, her body and expressions of emotion, to be digitized in order to produce horrible mainstream entertainment for which many performers would rather be paid than endure making. Robin reluctantly agrees and signs the contract, stipulating no sci-fi or holocaust films and certainly, no pornography. As the years pass, Robin finds her life and world unrecognizable as her digital persona morphs into the blockbuster movie phenom that she never could. Half live-action satire and half psychedelic animated head-trip, the film could be described as Children of Men meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a dystopian nightmare by way of Chuck Jones or Robert Crumb. Adapted from a little-known novel by Solaris author Stanislaw Lem by writer-director Ari Folman (Waltz With Bashir), The Congress is a subversive and anguished cautionary tale, which skewers worthy targets with skillful poise.
Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju)
A morbidly engrossing blend of horror and suspense from Judex director Georges Franju, Eyes Without a Face is the story of a father’s undying love for his only daughter, a poor girl who’s face was horrifically disfigured in an accident. Hoping to return the girl to her former beauty, the doctor, a more pensive version of the classic mad scientist, begins surgically removing the faces of kidnapped young women and transplanting them to his daughter’s visage, to varying degrees of success. Eerie in its deadpan seriousness and uncommonly gory, Franju’s film drips with an ageless Gothic mood and atmosphere, a seeming perfect marriage of high art and low genre, which includes a playfully creepy score by Maurice Jarre. The film is intelligently adapted from a novel by Jean Redon, climaxing with a diabolical game of cat and mouse which manages to keep the audience guessing right up to the grisly finale. More chilling perhaps than all of its violence is the tender affection shown by this twisted madman for his beloved daughter, who saw his own salvation in the return of her fleeting beauty.
Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma)
One thief, Laure (Rebecca Romijn) double crosses the other (Eriq Ebouaney) and soon, a classic Brian De Palma suspense sequence is playing out through the halls of the Cannes Film Festival. A model/actress on the red carpet is adorned with jewels worth over $10 million, which they plan to steal in the most deliriously De Palma-esque fashion imaginable. As Laure makes her escape, she encounters an aging married couple who mistake her for their missing daughter, lucking into a free ticket out of harm’s way. Fate and destiny intermingle with dreams as a world weary woman employs all of her charms, including her own beauty, to twist herself out of harm’s way. No matter where she turns, people are trying to kill her. Understandably so, in many cases, as she used everyone around her, manipulating them to meet her own ends. “I’m a bad girl,” she says. “Real bad. Rotten to the heart.”Bad? Perhaps. Rotten to the core? Far from it.
Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry)
Like a real-life Cinderella, Christina Crawford lived under the thumb of her adopted mother, famed screen actress Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) whose personal misery seeped into and infected the lives of everyone around her. Mommie Dearest is based on an autobiography by Christina, who as a young girl was beaten and verbally abused by her famous mommy for making even the simplest of childhood mistakes. Even worse, Christina also takes the brunt of the wrath when Joan’s fading career hits an inevitable dead-end. At first a pattern seems to emerge: Joan encounters any difficulty in her life and she throws a fit, taking out her anger on the defenseless children. Thus, when the actress wins an Oscar for her performance in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, we expect a reprieve from the madness. Instead, the horror-show which follows, the infamous ‘no wire hangers’ scene, exposes Joan at her most viciously disturbed. Even success cannot keep her raging demons at bay. Dunaway’s performance indeed slides into camp, bordering on self-parody, but her fevered severity and utter commitment to the cantankerous character is also rather mesmerizing.
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
An aspiring actress (of which there are many on this list) and a woman suffering from amnesia stumble upon mystery and danger on the palm tree laden streets of sunny Los Angeles. Betty (Naomi Watts) has just arrived in town, bringing with her inevitable silver screen ambitions. Rita (Laura Elena Harring) has just stumbled from a limo crash on the titular Mulholland Drive, into an apartment owned by Betty’s aunt, bleeding from the head and unable to remember her name. She selects ‘Rita’ from a movie poster, gazing hypnotically at the name Rita Hayworth. Soon, we discover we’ve wandered into a dreamscape, fractured by the past and perhaps even by the violence of a scorned lover. High hopes are dashed on the rocks, and the death of this beauty is, in many ways, eulogized at Club Silencio,where a woman lip-syncs a Roy Orbison song. As we were informed, there is no band. It is only a tape recording, a illusory facsimile of a true expression of beauty. Indeed, there is inherent beauty in both women, but as the dream twists, one jilts the other, and ugliness bubbles to the otherwise immaculate surface.
Opera (Dario Argento)
Betty (Cristina Marsillach), a lovely young opera singer, is tied up by a masked maniac, who then turns his attentions to the production’s seamstress. The madman has also taped needles to Betty’s lower eyelids, giving her a sickening choice: watch the seamstress die, or shut her eyes, blinding herself in the process. Choosing the former, Betty must watch the woman’s demise, all the while reminded by the taunting killer that her death could be the next. Perhaps best known for its technically virtuous POV tracking shots, which the maverick filmmaker uses as liberally as he does the candy-red blood, Dario Argento‘s Opera is a gorgeous and garishly stylized thriller which leads to a climax in which beauty triumphantly endures over violence. Betty’s escape from the shadowy corridors of the opera house to the sunny mountain meadows allows her to find a hopeful elation in a genre where it’s rarely found. In that sense, Opera is the optimistically rarest of Argento films.
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar)
A doctor hoping to create the perfect genetically engineered human skin keeps a mysterious patient (Elena Anya) in his home treatment center, under lock and key. One day, a man dressed in a tiger suit, the son of the doctor’s housekeeper, arrives at his front door and violent insanity suddenly ensues, a fiendishly disturbing scene which ends in murder. At which point, we flashback six years to reveal how these tragic souls initially came together as perhaps the most unabashedly warped family unit as found in writer-director Pedro Almodóvar‘s filmography. What begins as an act of revenge mutates into a mourning plea for emotional connection, a truly twisted reversal which throws a sympathetic light onto a despicable character. And so, the death of a monster precedes the birth of a beauty, but at the end of the day, The Skin I Live In is a story of mothers and sons, how they can drift apart, and reunite once more, transformed by the cruelties of time and fate.
Starry Eyes (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer)
Sarah (Alex Essoe), a waitress and aspiring actress, accepts a mysterious audition for a horror film called The Silver Scream, thrilled to have caught such a lucky break. Her friends are all supportive, if perhaps one or two seem noticeably jealous of Sarah’s new job opportunity. But the audition turns dark and unsettling rather quickly, forcing Sarah to make painful choices she never expected to make. A tiny glimmer of hope can be a dangerous thing. Career ambition quickly escalates into sickening violence and self-mutilation, and we begin to queasily wonder, how far will Sarah go to land this part? Along the way, her pursuit jeopardizes every relationship in her life, forgetting that success should not be attained over her friend’s dead bodies. Writer-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer display marvelous potential in this small-budget horror gem, as does lead actress Alex Essoe, whose boldly courageous performance cuts like a rusty dagger.
Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
It would be too easy to blame the limelight for the fate that befalls Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging movie starlet holed up in a dilapidated mansion on Sunset Blvd. She knows the ways of Hollywood all too well, and yet, still surrenders her heart to a cold and disloyal machine. After striking an unexpected relationship with a desperate screenwriter (William Holden), Norma tasks him to fix up a dusty old script she has lying around, hoping to cement her return to stardom. Poor Norma’s emotions soar for the first time in years, expecting a welcomed return to her youthful relevancy. But sadly, Norma gets her hopes up so high that when it’s revealed there will be no return to the salad days, she is unable to accept it. Trapped in a cold business which always favors the youthful over the aged, she snaps and turns her scorn to her only true friend. If only Norma Desmond could have lived precariously through the younger version of herself projected on the haunted walls of her mansion on Sunset Blvd.
Suspiria (Dario Argento)
Many critics have already drawn comparisons between Winding Refn’s newest film and Dario Argento‘s Suspiria, including its lush cinematic color-palette and a monumental synth score by Cliff Martinez which evokes Goblin‘s work on the giallo classic. And rightly so, as the two films would make for a rather unnerving double feature. After Suzy (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student enrolls at a prestigious dance academy on the edge of Germany’s Black Forest, a former student is found murdered. Stirring emotions among her classmates, Suzy begins to stand out from the rest of the dancers,drawing the attention of the ghoulish staff as she investigates the violent and surreal happenings. The school is merely a front, hiding a coven of spiteful witches, who manipulate and murder anyone who offends their tastes, and in their eyes, Suzy has been deeply offensive. It’s a shame Winding Refn’s supermodels did not possess Suzy’s plucky determination, otherwise The Neon Demon‘s body count could have been a little smaller.
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
Many would argue Vertigo to be Alfred Hitchcock‘s masterpiece, a mesmerizing and effective descent into obsessive love which leads to an iconic and tragic ending. It’s undoubtedly among the filmmaker’s finest works. The manipulation of a vertigo-afflicted detective (James Stewart) by a murderous business man turned con artist plants the seeds of a crippling obsession in the pitiful lawman. The detective, Scotty, denied any chance at revenge on the man who conned him, is left only with the hallow image of Madeline (Kim Novak) a woman who doesn’t really exist, in his absence. Her name is actually Judy. Indeed, Madeline was a fiction, but her love for Scotty was all too real. The depths to which Scotty will sink to reattain his cherished love is a chilling and morbidly involving element from the narrative adapted from a novel from mystery writers Boileau-Narcejac, who also co-authored the screenplay for another entry on this list, Eyes Without a Face. The unsettling sympathy shown to Scotty, following a sick man down a troubling path, should repel our empathy and understanding. And yet, Vertigo breaks hearts, leaving us mourning Scotty’s fate as much as we mourn the woman he couldn’t help but destroy.
Listen to our discussion of The Neon Demon below.
The Neon Demon is now in wide release.