March 26, 2014

Over the Top and Under the Skin

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It has been a while since a film so chillingly crawled under my skin. Jonathan Glazer’s newest and best film to date, Under the Skin, was released two weeks ago in the United Kingdom to mixed responses (Apr. 18 at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis). It’s quite appropriate that it has been so confoundedly mixed because this film by Glazer is unlike anything I have ever seen. This film, like many good films, points to everything that is ineffable about cinema. And a description of the film in print cannot begin to translate all the evocations that Under the Skin provokes without dumbing down the visual genius of it all. But I’ll try my best.

Now Under the Skin (adapted from the 2000 Michael Faber novel with the same name) cannot be categorized neatly underneath an umbrella of genre. But if you had to, it is a sci-fi thriller. The first 10 minutes or so involves a visual-gasm of the extraterrestrial imagination (think: a sexier version of the intro to 2001: A Space Odyssey). We assume this is a rebirth (insert Nietzche analysis here) of some kind. Scarlett Johansson, whose character remains unnamed, is an alien seductress who lures lonely men into her white van in and around Glasgow. She drives the men to her home — a black void that consumes them before they can touch her body. They are disposed of dispassionately and she moves on to the next victim. But there is a foreign humanity that starts to overcome her alien sensibilities. She begins to take pity on her victims. And she is dutifully punished for doing so.

The eeriness of the film lies in its complete and unassuming normalcy. It is intensely localized to Glasgow. Much of the film shoots from inside the car, targeting males going home, on their way to the market, or hanging about. The film’s production notes reveal that many of the conversations that Johansson had were unscripted conversations with non-actors. Many of them signed up with a basic understanding of the film’s premise. The terror that the film produces largely derives itself from the everyday quality of the situations that Under the Skin portrays.

And the film screams allegory. But of what exactly? And you can articulate, analyze, digest it however you want to. But it will still be full of knots and more questions. I have had friends who went to go see it for a second and third time to still come out confused. But satisfactorily confused. The intentional ambiguity almost brings forth everything Lynchian but it still carries a unique creative voice with a cinematographic hand (Daniel Landin) that cannot really compete with any of Lynch’s works.

All this combined with a soundtrack that screeches only three pitches makes for an intensive and unusual experience. The sounds create a foreignness that sync with Johansson’s state of mind — alien and inexplicable. Glazer, in interviews, discusses how he wanted to make the film about her. And as difficult as it must have been for him to not have the film circle around Johansson’s star persona, Glazer craftily keeps her in the shadows, quite literally, but allows her to have enough agency to carry on the narrative. This isn’t at all to undermine Johansson’s prowess in the film which took me by a pleasant surprise.

Coming out of the theater (which took me and my friend a while to do) was like stepping out of a sensational pot of oozy caramel, completely naked, that I could totally dip myself in again. Most male members of the audience will either come out disappointed or with refined tastes (we all know the real reason you went to watch). But everyone will convulse from the film’s visual ecstasies — that is if you are drawn to the cinema for the same reasons I am.

With all that said, keep your pants on.