The Edible Star: Narrative Agency & Female Ingenues in THE NEON DEMON & STARRY EYES
There are certain images and connotations that come to mind when you say the word “star”:
Constellation. Light. Mega. Beauty. Power. Hollywood.
In the last instance, a Hollywood star brings with it an entire new collection of imagery. Chiseled muscle men with Batman-esque square jaws who look like they just stepped out of a cologne ad. Thin or emaciated women in glamourous dresses, often blonde and ideally busty, with nary an inch of fat on their entire perfect bodies.
And then, of course, there are the implications and the allegations. We are but a few brief years out from the Weinstein saga; the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are still chugging along (albeit more quietly now than one would have hoped). The casting couches, the long hours, the haggard “older” men and women who peak and cast out with the trash to make room for the younger, hungrier future “It” guy or girl. The ingenues who arrive daily to live in decrepit motels, work waitressing jobs and bustle to auditions in their spare time in the hopes of being discovered, and made famous, and become fabulously glamourous and wealthy and beloved.
It is a narrative as old as time. It is fame.
It is one of the most conventionally classical journeys that Hollywood tells about itself in film: the rise to (super) stardom in a creative industry, be it acting, modelling, singing, or dance.
The “rise to fame” narrative, as presented in Hollywood films, is of particular interest to me. Not only are these films typically focused on female protagonists, but they are almost ubiquitously written and directed by men (the gender divide in terms of who has access and financial backing remains – disappointingly - incredibly male-centric). These narratives tend to focus on a few tropey elements, such as the rise of one necessitating the fall of another, struggles with addiction, the exploitation of the vulnerable and at-risk, the seedy underbelly of various industries that chew up and spit out the very talent it so desperately seeks.
These tropes become even more exaggerated when they are filtered through the lens of the horror genre, where the dramatic stakes become elevated into legitimate life and death territory. Such is the case in two recent films: Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) and Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (2014). Both films tell the story of an up and comer in Los Angeles desperate for fame in her chosen field, no matter the cost.
** ** **
The Neon Demon is Refn’s first female-led narrative after a career spent focusing exclusively on tough, nearly monosyllabic men (Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Pusher, Drive, Only God Forgives). The film focuses on Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model, as she makes a splash in Los Angeles thanks to her innocence and stunning naturalistic beauty.
Early in the film Jesse is befriended by predatory lesbian makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who invites her to attend a party. There she meets Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), a pair of established models who talk down to Jesse for her perceived naivety. Their level of derision is, of course, matched by their own insecurities, especially when Jesse signs with a notable talent agency run by Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), snags portfolio time with in-demand photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and books high-profile gigs.
Jesse’s demeanour changes following an otherworldly light spectacle on the runway; she becomes dismissive of her potential love interest Dean (Kark Glusman), cavalier about her success and overtly selfish. After a (dreamed?) violent encounter with Hank (Keanu Reeves), the landlord of her seedy motel, Jesse moves in with Ruby at a McMansion in the Hollywood hills. After rejecting Ruby’s advances, however, the makeup artist and the other models attack and literally consume Jesse to profit from her youth and vitality.
The film ends when Gigi, unable to live with her actions, commits suicide during a photoshoot. Sarah, however, has no issue with the actions that facilitated her return to the spotlight, presumably continuing to profit from Jesse’s murder after the credits roll.
** ** **
What is striking about The Neon Demon, aside from Refn’s propensity to favour visual style over narrative, is its embrace of mean-spiritedness as a natural side-effect of becoming a star. In the film, bodies – in particular female bodies – are always on display for the pleasure and consumption of others. This isn’t surprising considering the film’s thesis about the high price of rising - and staying - at the top of the fashion industry, but it is remarkable that there is nary a legitimate relationship among the bunch. The closest the film comes is Dean’s affection for Jesse, though it is always inferred that Dean is just as interested in what Jesse can offer his career, particularly as her success surpasses him.
The literal introduction of cannibalism in the final act is, in retrospect, unsurprising given the way that bodies are framed and discussed throughout the film. The Neon Demon is unsubtle in its classification of female bodies as edible: Ruby mentions that cosmetics are named using combinations of sex and food, even going so far as to ask Jesse: “Are you food or are you sex?” Sarah answers the questions herself when, after a failed audition, she attempts to drink Jesse’s blood following a bathroom altercation. In the film’s most uncomfortable personification of the death/sex/food triptych, Jesse is sexually assaulted in her motel room by Hank, who forces her to deep-throat a knife. Ruby, too, proves to be an aggressor: in addition to forcing herself on Jesse, Ruby mounts a corpse in the morgue, sticking her fingers in the dead woman’s mouth in pursuit of (misplaced) sexual gratification.
The Neon Demon is, without a doubt, a dark fable about the lengths that terrible people will go to in order to become a star. The final images, of Gigi and Sarah posed ramrod straight in front of a generic luxury mansion with pool, their bodies a mix/match of culturally appropriated looks and glistening like full-grown plastic Barbie dolls, is damning.
It’s also, however, a tired Hollywood narrative. There are countless articles detailing the film’s misogynistic treatment of women, decrying its treatment of “modelling as a form of prostitution” and how shallow, unlikeable and aggressive everyone is. There’s also something laughably obvious about the way that Jesse’s oft-remarked beauty becomes a magical elixir that can coax Sarah’s tired career back from the brink of extinction. Refn’s feel bad exposé of the beauty industry offers few, if any, fresh insights on an overly familiar story that has been told countless times.
The Neon Demon is worth seeking out for its stunning neon/candy coloured visual aesthetic, but as a narrative about the perils that befall ingenues seeking fame in the city of angels, the film has all of the freshness of a clean-picked carcass. Throw this one back into the empty pool.
** ** **
Starry Eyes, on the other hand, uses its familiar story as a framework to go dark and, in doing so, gets its hands unconventionally dirty. The film tells the story of Sarah (Alex Essoe), an aspiring actress in Los Angeles. By day Sarah works at a sleazy fast food joint called Taters (an obvious rift on Hooters), but her true passion is acting. She regularly sneaks off to auditions and dreams of being a starlet while she lays in bed in her run-down apartment.
Sarah’s friends fall into two camps: the girls, particularly fellow actress Erin (Fabianne Therese), are catty, dismissive and jealous while the boys, including aspiring director/love interest Danny (Noah Segan), are desperate to take advantage of Sarah’s contacts. There is a stark distinction between Sarah and her friends that is often emphasized by their framing on screen: Sarah is typically on the margins, an outsider among the group. Her closest connection is her roommate, Tracy (Amanda Fuller) who on the surface supports Sarah’s “can do” attitude, but also trash talks her behind her back.
Despite bombing her audition for a low-budget horror film, Sarah’s luck changes when she is caught in the act of harming herself in the bathroom. The vitriol and savagery she exacts upon herself catches the attention of the Casting Director (Maria Olsen), who invites Sarah back into the room for another chance. From there Sarah is ushered through a second epilepsy-inducing screen test and then brought to the film’s Producer (Louis Dezseran), who demands sexual favours in exchange for the lead role.
Sarah initially refuses, but later changes her mind and undergoes a dramatic physical and mental transformation. She loses her hair, suffers terrible stomach cramps that induce vomiting and, in a shocking turn of events, murders all of her friends. She is then buried alive and rebirthed twice over: as both a beautiful starlet and a member of the satanic cult that facilitated her ascent.
** ** **
The Neon Demon and Starry Eyes share a number of similarities in their narrative structures. Both films purport to track the rise and fall of a Los Angeles ingenue. Both position sexual favours as a tool of the trade, particularly with regard to older, powerful men. Both suggest that women are predominantly disposed to be petty, jealous and scorn-filled and that men are primarily interested in hitching their rides to a star on the rise.
Intriguingly both films also feature a visual motif wherein flashing light becomes an instrument for inciting personal transformation. In The Neon Demon, Jesse’s evolution from shy and naïve to powerful and aloof occurs during the runway show when she is entranced by a neon triangle and glimpses her mirror doppelgängers kissing. In Starry Eyes, Sarah’s second audition consists of a flashing strobe light that provokes her into an animalistic, bloody-mouthed fervour. When she exits onto the street, Sarah’s hair is askew and she is wide-eyed, but her delighted smile suggests that something within her has been awoken.
The primary difference between the two films is that Sarah’s trajectory has a great deal more depth than Jesse’s. The first act of Starry Eyes follows a meek and frustrated actress desperate to break out. The second act chronicles her meeting to the Producer and her eventual submission to his sexual demands. The third act documents her spiral as she begins to physically transform; her body literally consumes itself in anticipation of the murders and her reanimation as a classical Hollywood beauty.
Throughout Starry Eyes, however, Sarah remains in control of her agency. Unlike Jesse, who seemingly floats through life before she is tossed by Ruby in laissez-faire fashion into an empty pool and eaten, Sarah is nearly always driving her own narrative. Following her break down in the toilet, Sarah elects to perform for the Casting Director (on both occasions). Initially she rejects the Producer’s unwanted sexual advances, but ultimately decides that she cannot turn down the opportunity to become a star. Despite this sexual manipulation, though, Sarah is ultimately the one who decides to embrace the physical changes she is experiencing and she alone performs the murders of her friends. While the voices of the cult members echoing on the soundtrack are clearly influencing her, Sarah accepts their urging; she does not hesitate to murder five people in order to get what’s hers. This is particularly true of her final homicide victim – Tracy – whom Sarah lures into her bed for one last murderous kiss entirely of her own volition.
** ** **
At their core both films are inherently negative perspectives from male screenwriters/directors on the prospects of women seeking stardom in Los Angeles. The difference between the two texts is that Starry Eyes allows its female protagonist to take ownership of her own journey. Sarah may sell her (literal) soul and become a monster in order to become famous, but she has the agency to make the decision for herself. The resolution is grim and spectacularly bloody, but there is something admirable about this creative decision. The Neon Demon is content to tell a conventional story about the tolls paid in the pursuit of fame and, in the process, turns its heroine into a malleable victim. Starry Eyes follows many of the same tropes, but Kölsch and Widmyer are unafraid of transforming their protagonist into an assertive villain who is willing to do whatever she deems necessary to obtain her goals.
If Hollywood (or Hollywood’s men) insists on continuing to explore familiar narrative ground about the dangers of becoming a star, the least that they can do is tweak the formula and allow their ingenues to have more agency. After all, in order to get famous, sometimes you have to get your hands dirty.
Joe Lipsett is a TV addict with a background in Film Studies. He writes for Bloody Disgusting, Anatomy of a Scream, That Shelf, The Spool andGrim Magazine. He co-hosts two podcasts: Horror Queers, about queer perspectives in horror films, and Hazel & Katniss & Harry & Starr, about YA book-to-film adaptations. For more on Joe, visit his website QueerHorrorMovies.com.