Cannibal supermodels: THE NEON DEMON (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Marcellus (Hamlet Act I, scene iv) claimed that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, but it’s not their cannibal films or actors. The Neon Demon is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (currently in trouble with PETA for killing a pig for a TV series). Refn has made several movies (Pusher, Valhalla Rising, etc) starring Mads Mikkelsen, probably known best by the readers of this blog as Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps Svend in Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Green Butchers. This film does not have Mads in it, but it does have Elle Fanning as a sixteen-year-old model who, we just know, is going to be chewed up, swallowed and spat out by the Los Angeles fashion industry.

Books about screen-writing always stress the opening image – it sets the scene, establishes the atmosphere, tells the viewer what to expect. Well, this one sure does.

Jesse (Elle Fanning from The Great) dead on a couch, blood caked onto her throat and down her arm. A grim male gaze from a photographer. The killer? Police forensics?

No, he’s an amateur photographer doing audition shots for her, and is probably the only nice guy in the story, and we all know where nice guys finish. Anyway, Jesse is befriended, as she wipes off the fake blood, by a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone from The Hunger Games), who takes her to a party to meet the LA fashion scene.

The other models hate her for being young and pretty and not needing the constant plastic surgery to fix all the things the surgeon and our culture say is wrong with their bodies. In the bathroom, as you do, they discuss lipsticks, which they note are always named after either food or sex, and speculate on this new commodity, Jesse. Is she food or sex?

Either way, it’s about appetite. Think of an animal, any animal – a snail, a snake, a human. What is the animal thinking about? It’s almost certainly food or sex. This film combines the two. The men have the power – the celebrity photographer, the fashion designer, even the sleazy motel manager (played with black humour by Keanu Reeves) – Jesse is their fresh meat.

The young, hopeful girls have their looks, and a useful booster of narcissism, a taste for the neon demon of fame, which fuels their journey through the fashion jungle.

When they get “old” (over twenty apparently), they inject various toxins and go under the plastic surgeon’s knife to fix what they are convinced are their failings. But it’s never enough. Jesse sees visions which confirm her own beauty in her eyes:

Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, praying that one day they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.

But once used up, the women and girls are rejected, discarded, left to fight among themselves – to the death. Jesse is edible to them too, but not in the male way, more in the way that Elizabeth Báthoryis alleged to have bathed in the blood of virgins to keep her youth.

That’s a small taste of the real cannibalism in the film, which infiltrates the metaphoric cannibalism of the meat markets of advertising and fashion. There is an ancient tradition, from the earliest days of tribal ceremonies and the Wendigo to Richard Chase and Armin Meiwes, that eating the flesh or drinking the blood of a victim (preferably a young fit one) will transfer their strength and attractiveness to the eater. If you can keep them down of course.

An even older tradition talks of killing and eating the gods of the harvest, in order that they may be reborn and bring with them next year’s prosperity. The tradition survives in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist service. Jesse is a young and beautiful. She is, or thinks she is, a goddess. How can she not be eaten, in this film both metaphorically and literally?

There is no point in going on with the plot, it’s filled with rape, paedophilia, murder, masturbation, necrophilia, and of course cannibalism, but you really need to see it yourself, and anyway, the plot is not the point. Brian Tellerico, the reviewer from Rogerebert.com, summed this up:

It is a sensory experience, driven by the passion of its fearless filmmaker and a stunning central performance by Elle Fanning.

The director called the film an “adult fairy tale”:

“I woke up one morning a couple of years ago and was like, ‘Well, I was never born beautiful, but my wife is,’ and I wondered what it had been like going through life with that reality. I came up with the idea to do a horror film about beauty, not to criticize it or to attack it, but because beauty is a very complex subject. Everyone has an opinion about it.”

Everyone had an opinion about The Neon Demon too, with some of the audience at Cannes booing it and the rest giving it a standing ovation. You can make up your own mind – it’s an Amazon original, so you should be able to find it quite easily wherever you are in the world. It is a beautiful film, the acting is superb, the direction is assured and precise. The horror is not so much from the gore, as the scenes of young girls being treated as meat. But that is exactly the point.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke of what he called “carnivorous sacrifice”:

“The establishment of man’s privileged position requires the sacrifice and devouring of animals.”

The animals we sacrifice and devour are little more than infants – chickens for example are slaughtered at seven weeks of age. Pigs are killed at six months (less if they run into Refn, apparently). We no more eat old animals than photographers seek out old models. Remember Curtis’ line in Snow Piercer:

“I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.”

Or the words of John Jacques Rousseau:

The animals you eat are not those who devour others; you do not eat the carnivorous beasts, you take them as your pattern. You only hunger after sweet and gentle creatures who harm no one, which follow you, serve you, and are devoured by you as the reward of their service.

Cannibalism is no more or less than the sacrifice and devouring of animals – in this case, the Great Ape known as Homo sapiens. As voracious consumerism and greed extends its reach, to plunder the entire planet, the distinction between us and the other animals seems increasingly to evaporate.

Cannibalism costs an arm and a leg: THE BAD BATCH (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2017)

What do we do when dystopian stories start to look like the daily news? This film was made in the first year of the Trump presidency, which, you will remember, was partly won on the promise to build a “big beautiful wall” to keep criminals and rapists out of the USA. But what do you do with the criminals already inside the big beautiful wall? “Non-functioning members of society” are, in this dystopia, exiled, quarantined as “bad batch”.

Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is bad batch number 5040, a number which is tattooed behind her ear, similar to the way Holocaust victims were stripped of their names and their humanity and became just numbers. She is then sent through the wall into a vast desert with little more than a sandwich and a bottle of water.

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She is almost immediately captured by the cannibals, the “bridge people”, who live in crashed planes and work out like Muscle Beach.

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The two women who caught Arlen hacksaw her leg and arm off, cauterise the stumps with their frying pan, presumably to keep the rest of her fresh, and go off to cook the limbs.

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Arlen escapes on a skateboard, pushing with one arm and one leg, and, just as she is about to be eaten by crows, is found by a hermit (an unrecognisable Jim Carrey!)

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The hermit takes her to Comfort, a settlement which seems to be a continuous rave club, run by a charismatic cult leader, The Dream (Keanu Reeves), who throws the parties and has his own harem of pregnant young women. In Comfort, they seem to prefer to eat noodles and rabbits (and lots of drugs) to human flesh, but – who knows? Like the bad bunch people, the camp structures are the rejects and wreckage of society – yet there never seem to be serious shortages of anything, particularly drugs. And The Dream lives in luxury, on the proceeds of the drugs, which are the currency of Comfort.

The folks at Comfort have given Arlen a prosthetic leg, but she still misses her arm. But one hand is enough to handle a gun. Is there some symbolism here that is even more Freudian than Trumpian?

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Meanwhile, back at cannibal HQ, the leader, Miami Man (Jason Momoa- you might remember him as Aquaman), is killing and carving up a woman for dinner.

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Is this going to be a simple good (rabbit eaters) vs evil (human eaters) story?

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Not quite. How can there be good and evil, when everyone is on the wrong side of the wall? Miami Man turns out to be a devoted Dad; he has a cute little daughter, and you know how much kids eat, right? Some of his tribe collect rubbish from the tip, others collect humans for dinner – is there a difference in a world where value is only assigned to those deemed worthy of being on the right side of the big, beautiful wall?

Arlen is gunning for revenge. She comes across the little girl and one of the bridge people women who kidnapped her, foraging for plates.

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She shoots the woman and takes the girl back to Comfort, buys her a rabbit. But then Arlen takes drugs, handed out at the party like Eucharist wafers, and wanders into the desert, to wonder at the glories of the galaxy, as you do when you take psychedelics (or so I hear).

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Well, we know there is going to be a meeting and a reckoning with the cannibal king. It’s hard to tell, though, who are the good guys in a world where everyone is an exile, and maybe a cannibal? As Arlen says to MM:

“Here we are in the darkest corner of this Earth, and we’re afraid of our own kind.”

The film is loosely based on a true story: the so-called “Cannibal Island”, a small island called Nazino in Siberia to which Stalin deported around 4,000 people declared to be “declasse and socially harmful elements” including political dissidents, disabled or impoverished people and criminals. They were dumped on the island with no food except some raw flour, which gave them dysentery. Before long, they turned to cannibalism. Two thirds of the deportees were killed or died of hunger and disease.

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It makes Comfort look positively comfortable.

The Vancouver North Shore News said “The Bad Batch could as easily be described as “a Futuristic Cannibal Spaghetti Western,” a dystopian genre mash-up.” It has a disappointing 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is admittedly a bit slow in parts (and a bit daft in others), but the cast is great, the photography often superb, and the political timing spot-on. Walls lead to wars, and the phrase “dog-eat-dog” should really be “human-eat-human”. Eating rabbits, eating humans.

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Because when it all hits the fan, whether it’s outside the wall or sleeping in the streets eating Soylent Green, humans are usually only one species barrier away from cannibalism. Expelled from under the thin camouflage of civilisation, we are all bad batch cannibals.

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