Friday, April 04, 2014

Getting under your skin

You can just picture the meeting in a Hollywood studio.  The British director pitching his new, high concept movie to the moguls; Scarlett Johanssen drives round the streets of Glasgow in a Ford Transit picking up strange men. And it will be mostly improvised using a candid camera and real people. Yep, that would have been a short meeting.

So, why is 'Under the Skin' picking up such rave reviews from critics? It certainly seems to be ticking some boxes in film circles.  Some are comparing its director Jonathan Glazer to Stanley Kubrick, others see echoes of Nicholas Roeg's 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'.  And I can see why - it has long, slow, observational scenes, minimal dialogue, an eerie musique concrète soundtrack, and some startling visual effects scenes alongside the mundane imagery of Johanssen driving round drab Glaswegian streets.  One truly magical moment is when she finds herself caught in the whiteout of a highland haar - both an everyday experience for a Scot, but a moment of bewildered wonder for an alien. Experiencing the mundane as alien is perhaps the most Kubrick or Roeg like qualities of the film.

Thematically it also draws parallels to those two directors.  An alien in human guise, with uncertain (i.e. alien) motivations finds themselves drawn towards the human condition, but finds themselves still an outsider and not able to connect.  The hunter become the hunted, gender roles and power imbalances are exposed. And there is the bizarre, abstract opening scene of something like a human eye being assembled in darkness, back-lit by a single point of light as the eerie three note main theme is played on electronically re-touched strings (very reminscent of Ligeti's 'Lux Aeterna'  playing against the Star Gate sequence in Kubrick's 2001) while a woman's voice hesitatingly tests out out the phonemes of English, as if learning to speak the language for the first time.

And there is a vein of horror, as the men Johansson's nameless alien picks up are sucked into a black, oily liquid and eviscerated - for reasons unknown - leaving just the haunting image of their empty skins floating in a black void. Another scene on a beach is even more horrific, as an awful family tragedy unfolds and a futile but heroic attempt at rescue culminates in a dispassionate Johanssen clubbing to death the rescuer and leaving the family to their fate without a whisper of emotion or empathy.

Audiences may have been less enthralled than many of the critics - the ending eliciting a loud raspberry from the back of the cinema when I viewed it recently.  It has, nevertheless stuck in the top ten for several weeks at the UK box office, which is no mean feat for an arthouse science fiction film.  Many, no doubt went to see what promised to be an erotic thriller with Johansen 'getting her kit off for the lads'.  Well, there is plenty of quite explicit nudity (male and female), but I found it profoundly un-erotic.  Johansen inhabits her skin as an alien, not sure why her body affects men the way it does, but knowing that the effect is useful to her purpose and having an idea of the rules she must play by to lure in her victims.  The one sex scene is awkward and ultimately futile - her alien body is not designed the same way as ours, a reality already hinted at by apparently not needing (nor being able) to eat or sleep. She remains an outsider, unable to fully experience what it is to be human.

Other things stick out. Particularly Johanssen as the predator, picking up men with a mixture of faux innocence and sexual appeal.  It could only work that way round - Brad Pitt driving around picking up women the same way would just have been sickening and creepy in the wrong way.  This is much more unsettling - it is the promise of strings free sex with a beautiful and available woman that is the undoing of the men in the film, none of them stopping to question why she would be offering herself to them like this. And when the tables are reversed, it is male abuse of power and drive for sex that undoes Joahnssen's character. The film does not paint a pretty picture of male sexuality and attitudes to women.

Johanssen is the star of the film - none of the other characters being much more than ciphers.  She acts by face and body language (or its absence) more than voice (although her clipped, London vowels are convincing, she barely utters more than a few dozen lines of mostly improv dialogue) and is quite compelling, especially as she starts to unravel in the film's last act.  And it is as she changes, as she experiences human kindness, as she tries to show mercy to one of her victims, as she seeks human connection with another man who helps her, so it is that she becomes more vulnerable.  As she becomes more the woman she seems to be, so it is that she also succumbs to the power imbalances that disadvantage women in our society.  All this is conveyed in a flawless performance by an actress who was obviously unafraid to take real risks in taking on such a difficult role.

In some ways the film is an honourable failure - the lack of human interest or development in the other characters and the lack of backstory or motivation making it a hard watch for those used to more conventional cinema. There is also a distinct jarring between the science fictional and the (largely improvised and candid camera filmed) realistic scenes in Glasgow. 

But somehow, it does get under ones skin. Particularly compelling are the eerie and unsettling soundtrack that borders on sound effects rather than music in places, the stark but beautiful visuals, but above all the view of humanity, especially human (particularly, male) sexuality that it deconstructs so disturbingly. All in all an interesting film that will be talked about for years, and will be worth revisiting.


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