Sunday, April 27, 2014

Under the Skin Movie Review

A decade after his last feature, Jonathan Glazer returns after the critical and commercial failure of Birth (unseen by me) with a film so beguiling, bewitching, off the wall, and off the charts that it begs to be seen by even the most skeptical of viewers. Under the Skin is certainly not for everyone and I don’t mean that in terms of content. The directorial method and storytelling structure are often maddeningly oblique. The screenplay by Glazer and Walter Campbell is based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, although from my reading of Wikipedia’s description, it’s really more a jumping off point.


In the novel, an alien comes to earth to harvest humans as fodder for the beings on her home planet. Disguised as a sexy woman, she lures men to their doom. The whole thing becomes a satirical criticism of animal production for human consumption. Glazer and Campbell elide all the backstory and strip it down to what is one of the most austere story productions in recent memory. Glazer uses elements of experimental filmmaking to evoke mood and tone. And I don’t use that word by accident as the entire soundtrack – nearly devoid of dialogue – is overtaken by ambient effects including low hums and a spare musical track.

The opening sequence is all experimental. If you’re frustrated through the opening, you’d better just give up. But if you find the near incomprehensibility of high contrast white on black accompanied by a mélange of sound effects intriguing, then you’ll want to stick it out. Is the opening meant to suggest the formation of this alien creature into her earthling human form? I don’t know. I suppose it’s open to interpretation, but the end result of a disc turning into an eyeball is certainly evocative of much more than just a Stanley Kubrick film.

Scarlett Johansson plays the unnamed alien who first appears silhouetted against a stark white background methodically stripping the body of a young woman for her clothes. She then spends her nights on the prowl for men, whom she lures into her van and entices into her seedy house where they willingly strip down to bare flesh before being swallowed up by some thick black goo, in which they slowly decay (or are they digested?) Without the knowledge of the novel’s plot all this is devoid of context, which is sort of Glazer’s point, as near as I can guess. Under the Skin is all about creating something like a nightmare on film. Just as the most vivid nightmares we have are simultaneously and equally irrational and terrifying (and often without context), so goes Glazer’s film.

But it’s not all nihilistic, though the alien’s depraved indifference to a toddler, whose parents have just drowned, crying alone on the beach, is enough to make any parent’s heart bleed. The optimism comes in the form of humanity’s ability to seep into even the coldest of creatures. Johansson’s performance is mesmerizing and is also, it should be noted, a wonderful flip side, with its near absence of spoken lines, to her role in Her, which of course gave her only a voice to work with. In that film she was a mechanized consciousness that develops emotional needs and wants. Similarly here she is something of an automaton to start, mimicking human behavior as she selects her prey. Reportedly, the encounters she has were filmed with unwitting non-actors through cameras hidden in the van. Only later were they informed of the movie. This lends an authenticity to her meetings, especially given their thick local Glaswegian accents, which may be as indiscernible to her as they are to most American audiences.

Through various encounters, she begins to develop empathy for human beings as he sees them as creatures capable of small kindnesses, beginning with strangers coming to her aid when she trips while walking in the street. This moment begins her transformation that is later solidified when she attempts to capture a lonely man (Adam Pearson) suffering from what appears to be Neurofibromatosis (the same malady that afflicted the “Elephant Man”). Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, as she shows more human emotional responses to environmental stimuli, she becomes more vulnerable to her surroundings until she herself becomes the victim of male sexual aggression.

Surely there are several readings to make of this film, one of which may be to view it as a commentary on the vulnerability of women walking alone at night or going for a ride with a strange man. It almost certainly hasn’t escaped Glazer’s attention that the men who climb into that van hardly think twice about it, whereas any woman would have to out of her mind or incomprehensibly foolish to do the same for a man. Then again, you can also just sit back and allow the captivating style of both image and sound to wash over you for that rare purely cinematic experience.

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