Under the Skin

April 16, 2014

under-the-skin-scarlett-johannson-skip

Despite a very, very limited feature film career (three, actually, with the last one being 10 years ago), Jonathan Glazer can comfortably consider himself the most self-consciously Kubrickian auteur working today.  It’s not an easy style to go after, obviously, and it speaks to his talents that on the basis of, really, two films (Under the Skin and Birth, though I haven’t seen it since it came out I feel Sexy Beast is memorable for a performance rather than visuals) that this quality can be considered a positive rather than an affront.  It’s all the more impressive when you consider the tonal consistency of Under the Skin considering it’s essentially three different films cut into halves. 

The first film is an abstract sci-fi picture reminiscent of the European style of the 60s and 70s.  There aren’t any spaceships to be found, but rather an opening of mysterious objects that suddenly become an eye, the removal of clothes from a body in a white space, and a series of false seductions in a seemingly endless black room with a hidden body of black liquid that Scarlett Johansson’s alien can walk across.  The crucial thing is that there’s no obvious logic to the alien spaces, but rather their strange alien-ness is the point.  Glazer has no interest in making the kind of science fiction that functions in a recognizable, technologically-logical world.  It’s capital-A “Arty”, sure but it’s sleekly basic in its beauty and it makes no attempt to hide the metaphorical nature of the story.

The second film is a guerilla-style experiment in blurring the lines between fiction and reality as camera set-ups hidden in a van allow Scarlett Johansson to drive around Glasgow and engage random strangers on the street.  She asks for directions and tries to segue into something like a pick-up line.  Most of these are apparently real people off the street, though some must be plants because of later sequences.  Still, the aesthetic blends seamlessly (as it must) and even if it calls attention to itself here and there (the style of the clearly hidden camera shooting of her shopping trip through the Buchanan Galleries is particularly disjointed from what we’d expect from the director of Birth), it melds the rehearsed and the unrehearsed quite well.  The truly interesting aspect of these sequences is Scarlett herself as she switches from emotionless automaton alien to chirpy English siren in a beat, especially with the meta-consideration that she’s talking to strangers on the fly.  In its way it’s an investigation of Scarlett the celebrity rather than the alien as she consciously “acts” in conversation with real people.  There is most certainly a Star Studies paper being outlined just this moment somewhere in the world.

The third film is a somber self-discovery picture, after Scarlett’s alien gains some degree of compassion and strikes off on her own in the Scottish countryside.  Form follows function and Glazer pulls back from the constricting guerilla style of earlier and lets the film, like the character, have some space to breathe and explore.  Claustrophobic shots from inside the van give way to an emergence from a dense fog, and we’re treated to the lonely but freeing long shot of a small town road on a hill, with Johansson standing out in her bright clothes amidst the grey as she waits for a bus on the bottom of the frame as it appears in the distance at the top.  Explorations of the area with a kindly man are treated similarly, and the result is the freedom to explore muted by the limitations of her physical abilities (watch the way she spits out a delicious looking cake in a restaurant).  Glazer appreciates the space given whilst never forgetting the utter loneliness and, eventually, the degree of menace that comes from being out on your own.  Intercutting her journeys with the efforts of her male handlers on motorcycles scouring the countryside raises the tension until it a simultaneously breathtaking and nauseating finale in a forest.

Anchoring the picture, as she must, is Scarlett Johansson, who has operated on the cold, introspective register before with great success, but saying that is not to downplay the difficulty of the transition from robotic femme fatale (laid out with no small amount of humble charm when talking to her potential victims) to a confused, searching individual.  If the metatext of the early part involves her playing down her celebrity while still using those assets, the latter is a showcase of subtle dread and realization.  She begins the film by using her body instinctually for what the culture (and, narratively, what her male handlers) demands but it’s not until she begins to explore just what that body is that we get to see the full range of her abilities.  It becomes, then, a very feminist film in the trappings of a cold, haunting, and dread-filled science-fiction art piece.  There’s a reversal of fortune at the end, and also a tonal shift that’s still somehow in keeping with the overall mood (special recognition should go to Mica Levi’s dissonant, unsettling score) of the whole.  Indeed, the ending itself, with all its shocking horror and beauty feels more like Catherine Breillat than anything else.

Alien/otherbeing self-discovery is nothing new in cinema, and there are aspects of this work that recall Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth in tone if not in message.  Indeed, the wandering towards oblivion had me thinking of Daft Punk’s Electroma more than a few times.  Despite the cinematic precursors and even the occasional flirtations with self-conscious obfuscation, the film stands as something original and, in its way, exciting.  An intriguing study of Scarlett Johansson as cinematic object becomes an introspective character piece about someone discovering herself only to be trapped by the cultural forces that made her so effective before her self-realization.  It’s an impressive work of filmmaking, and it makes the long ten-year gap between this and Birth worth the wait.

 

-M

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