The young actress dazzles as she transitions into more adult fare with two incredibly feminist roles.
“I’m not as helpless as I look,” breathes Jesse (Elle Fanning), the angelic model with a halo of ringlets and an alluring handful of je ne sais quoi, in The Neon Demon. Though she is new to Los Angeles and the modeling world, Jesse is able to climb the ranks quickly with her innocent charm, displacing other models and slipping into the cycle of disposable beauty and youth. As she later states, she is well aware of how she looks and the power seated inside of the superficiality of winning the genetic lottery.
But what makes Jesse so intriguing is just how undercutting her ruthlessness is, it is not abrasive or brash, instead it is subtle and therefore more powerful. When she wins a coveted spot in a runaway show, she floats into the bathroom to watch Sarah (Abbey Lee), who was not selected, have a meltdown. “I thought you were great,” she cooes. And on the first pass we almost believe she’s being genuine.
The Neon Demon’s take on the fashion industry almost seems a match made in heaven for writer and director Nicolas Winding Refn, who flourishes in a playground of color, beauty and light leaving us with perhaps his most beautiful film yet. But his acerbic take on society’s objectification and (quite literal) consumption of female bodies has often been critiqued for being style over substance, without consideration to this being the point. The film’s thesis is best summed up by faux fashion designer Roberto Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) who rips into the idea that it is what is inside that counts. He equates natural, true beauty to a currency. Just as Dean (Karl Glusman) wouldn’t have looked twice at Jesse unless she was beautiful, we too might have ignored a film about fashion if it wasn’t helmed by Refn. “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” Sarno continues. On this stage, substance cannot matter, it is held hostage by beauty.
Of course, sitting at the center of this conversation, as well as the film, is Jesse, the demure teenager who has now grown more self-assured in her beauty. But Jesse has also been sapped of her innocence and is quickly learning that trading beauty as currency often leaves her short-changed. It’s a fascinating role for Fanning, a child actress who has grown up in Hollywood and is now transitioning into adult roles. Like Jesse, Fanning was just sixteen during filming and eighteen by the film’s release. It would be lazy and shortcoming to reduce Fanning’s role to her beauty. Yes, she is breathtaking, doe-eyed and bedecked in gold paint like an angelic messenger from Fritz Lang’s dreams.
But Fanning brings a fascinating depth to what could easily be written off as a shallow role. There is an dangerous undercurrent beneath Jesse’s innocent and polite charm; she doesn’t waste time plying her beauty for favors on people like Hank (a deliciously dark Keanu Reeves) who are undeserving and offer nothing of real value. As she later tells Dean, she doesn’t want to be like everyone else, they want to be her. Of course, she is ultimately doomed and Fanning’s performance masterfully hints at this as she sways atop an empty swimming pool in the grey dusk light, recalling how her mother told her she was dangerous. Even if she survived, she would have been relegated to the ranks of women discarded once their beauty blurred with age, a ghostly Ms. Havisham haunting a decrepit mansion howling for one last close-up. Jesse was doomed from the start.
Fanning is due to follow up The Neon Demon with Mike Mills’ much talked about 20th Century Women, slated for a Christmas release. The film is a love letter from Mills to his mother, embodied by a phenomenal Annette Bening, who makes us also fall in love with the incredible Dorothea, a single mother and child of the Depression, raising her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) during the denouement of the punk movement in 1979. But beyond this, the film explores three women – Dorothea; Abbey (Greta Gerwig), an artist and one of Dorothea’s lodgers; and Julie (Fanning), Jamie’s best friend and unrequited crush – as they search for love.
It’s quite easy to fall in love with Gerwig’s Abbey. She is a talented photographer, she dyes her hair red because of David Bowie, she’s got a killer record collection; in short, she’s the cool older sister everyone has a crush on and tries to emulate. But Abbey is precisely what you expect her to be, a hip, feminist artist.
Instead, it is Fanning’s Julie that offers a refreshing and realistic portrayal a of a teenage girl with agency. When she admit to Jamie that half of her backseat fumbles result in hardly satisfying sexual encounters, she follows it up by saying she continues to have sex because the other half are pleasurable. There isn’t an ounce of remorse or shame in her sexuality, instead it is something she embraces as natural and deserving. Later, when Jamie tries to pressure Julie into sex, she masterfully dresses down his sense of entitlement, telling him that he isn’t in love with her, but with the idea of her. At a time when she should still be able to float carefree in her youth, Julie is all-too conscious of how her beauty and desirability can be transferred into ownership.
It’s a subtle nod to Fanning’s Jesse and bittersweet acknowledgment for a teenager who recognizes that the limitations to her liberation are ones she cannot control. While her rebellious behavior can give her agency and help her explore and establish who she truly is, Julie will still be held firmly in place by patriarchy designations of what she is and what she can offer to men. It is an instantly recognizable frustration and one that unfortunately supersedes the film’s time period. But most of all, bookended with her role in The Neon Demon, it amounts to an absolutely fascinating year for Fanning; her choices of strong, feminist roles that have made the crossover into her adult career an important one to watch.
There is much to look forward to in 2017 as Fanning takes on roles in Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, as well as Mélanie Laurent’s Galveston and a turn as Mary Shelley in A Storm in the Stars. And if 2016 has been any indicator, we all should sit up and take notice.
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