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Entries in Under the Skin [2014] (1)

Friday
Apr112014

Under the Skin (2014)

Cosmo Girl

I admit, the Calum Marsh pull-quote that pops up in Under the Skin's trailer got under my skin:

"We may finally have an heir to Kubrick"?

Please.

Granted, my reaction was shaded by frustration: after spending two minutes watching trippy clips cut to trippier music, and featuring Scarlett Johansson in a European hooker's outfit, I still had no idea what the movie was about. It wasn't until I read a synopsis that I realized she was playing an alien, and not the disaffected president of the Björk Fan Club.

Sometimes annoyance is a more powerful motivator than curiosity, and I'm glad I saw Jonathan Glazer's film in a theatre with high-quality projection and sound. Under the Skin is a senses-shattering work of profundity, the kind of emotionally and intellectually sticky experience that simply won't let go. I'm no longer mad at Marsh; in fact, he should have been more declarative in his praise.

Many filmmakers who claim Kubrick as a hero embrace his films' weirdness and ambiguity as a creative crutch: imagery, their work argues, doesn't have to mean anything; it simply has to convery the illusion of meaning. Kubrick's eye for and attention to details made the audience believe he had a point of view regarding every aspect of his stories. I still don't get the significance of 2001's star child, and would be hard-pressed to fully explain Eyes Wide Shut, but I believe Kubrick had an explanation for everything--by virtue of the confidence with which he presented his imagery.

It's difficult to synopsize Under the Skin, which features no named characters. Glazer worked with Walter Campbell to adapt Michel Faber's novel (which I haven't read), and I'm curious as to whether the film's anonymity was a staple of the book, as well. It's fitting, because two of the film's themes are isolation and man's willingness to trust others--despite instinct or flat-out warning signs. One could also argue that McDonald's patrons don't name their Big Macs, and Johansson's character is essentially on an interstellar foodie mission.

We first meet her naked, in a glowing white room. Another alien, disguised as a motorcyclist, has just presented her with the lifeless body of a transient girl. Johansson takes her clothes and sets out in a white van to pick up random men in the streets of Scotland. She lures them in with promises of helping an attractive, confused woman find her way to some destination or other. Those gullible enough to join her are led to various empty apartment buildings, which are transformed into identical black lairs of seduction.

Clothes come off. The lustful, slow-motion pursuit begins. Then, nothing. Johansson emerges unfazed, as her prey become submerged in something resembling water.

At first, these scenes come off as artful posturing, as if the victim is imagining the whole bizarre affair. Through repetition, we learn that the room is quite real, and the world beneath the "water" is bone-chillingly strange. Johansson has come to eat, but she has very particular tastes: the men must be willing, single, in decent shape, and not missed by anyone. Early on, she has no trouble finding horny idiots for her feast, but as she spends more time on Earth, she begins to understand that humans are slightly more complex than entrées.

For most of the film, however, she maintains an eerie detachment, breaking out into a flirty British accent only when the men need an extra push to give in (the alien equivalent, I suppose, of, "Heeeere, kitty, kitty!"). This commitment to observation without intervention pays off in one truly devastating scene where a family finds itself imperilled at a beach. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin keep the camera at a distance, allowing a perfectly choreographed, horrifying display of nature, actions, and consequences to unfold. There's no on-the-nose score here, no dramatic close-ups or agonzied speeches. I kept waiting for Johansson to help somehow, but then I asked myself when the last time was that I stopped to rescue a cluster of ants struggling on the sidewalk.*

I won't spoil the rest of the film, except to say that we do get to see what Johansson looks like underneath. The effect is haunting and rather sad, given the circumstances, but the actress's performance really sells a moment that might have just been an effects showcase in lesser hands. Between this film and Her (in which she is all body and no body, respectively), Johansson digs deep and puts to rest any concerns that she's just an attractive comic-book-movie heroine. I was affected by the full spectrum of her performance here, by the nuance she brought to simple looks of disinterest--which evolved into something more over the course of the story.

The film's third star (behind Glazer and Johansson) is composer Mica Levi. His score is so eerie that a friend sent me a YouTube clip of one of the tracks, and I had to cut it short. In general, Under the Skin is a delicious sound experience, from the muffled opening bits where Johansson's alien is apparently learning how to speak, to the claustrophobic drowning sounds of the world deep beneath the black room, the complete audio package may just drive you mad (in the best way).

Some might tire of the relatively aimless plot, which is eroded by artistic flourishes. There are no easy answers here, and Glazer and company relish keeping the full story at arm's length. I never got the feeling they were spit-balling, though, or messing around--or making references to things that I should have known about before going in. This is one of those great films where the truth comes out later, in discussion, reflection, and, likely, multiple viewings. Glazer captures the conflicting emotions and existential crises of the human condition so perfectly here that critics should begin concerning themselves with who will be his heir.

*Actually, I asked myself this in retrospect. In the moment, I just wanted to leave and make the unpleasantness stop.