Monday, April 7, 2014

Under the Skin

Grade: 90/A-

The term “Kubrickian” is thrown around a lot these days, but it legitimately applies to Under the Skin, the third film by Jonathan Glazer and his first since 2004’s underrated Birth. Under the Skin opens with one of the strangest and most arresting sequences in recent film history, as a large circular objects lowers itself to the screen as ambient sound and scratching string music blares on the soundtrack. The sound of Scarlett Johansson’s smoky voice enters, but it’s not forming coherent words. Glazer doesn’t immediately explain what’s happening, but rather expects viewers to put it together. What’s even more thrilling than what Glazer trusts us with is that even as the object turns from something abstract to something more coherent (an eye), we can’t forget the alien origin of the object – it remains deeply unsettling.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who remains unnamed in the credits, although some reviews have referred to her as “Laura.” Johansson spends her days and nights traveling Scotland, picking up men, enticing them to follow her. When she brings them into their apartment, she strips off her clothes, and as they do they same, they’re trapped in an odd black liquid.

There’s more background in Michel Faber’s original novel, but Glazer forgoes exposition and abstracts the narrative to deliriously cinematic effect. Most of Under the Skin’s first two thirds play like a cross between 2001 and a horror movie: Johansson cruises Scotland, picks up men, and lures them to their horrible fate. Mica Levi’s deeply unsettling score begins with low violins and a slow near-metronomic march as the men are lured into a black void of a room as Johansson strips without emotion, her body reflected by the sleek black floor. The men can’t help but follow her lead, ignoring her vacant, predatory gaze and the HOLY SHIT THERE IS NOTHING IN THIS ROOM SOMETHING IS TERRIBLY WRONG as they’re swallowed into a void to the sound of shrill violins.
It’s repetitive, but hypnotically so, as each episode gradually reveals more about Johansson’s purpose and what awaits the men beneath the liquid while still remaining essentially abstract. There’s an intense sense of alienation as Johansson roams the country, as voices around her become indecipherable, echoing noise and the men’s thick, often difficult to understand Scottish brogues make humanity seem just as foreign to us as they are to her. Glazer capitalizes on that feeling by placing Johansson in places where she’s forced to react to human behavior.

A breathless sequence on a beach could serve as its own mini-masterpiece: Johansson tries to pick up a vacationing Czech surfer, only to have her conquest interrupted as a nearby woman runs into the tide to save her drowning dog, followed by her husband trying to save her and the surfer chasing after him. Johansson’s non-reaction to the tragedy before her eyes is made more eerie by the long shot Glazer frames her in to heighten her distance from the messy humanity on display. And that’s before the shocking climax to the scene plays, followed by an even more uneasy denouement involving the couple’s screaming infant child completely forgotten on the beach.

It’s not just human behavior Glazer makes unrecognizable and distancing: large chunks of the film borrow from cinema history in order to render the familiar alien. There are wide shots of vistas reminiscent of John Ford or David Lean, but the landscapes are punishing rather than lush. The seductions-turned-murders have the structure of slasher movies, but they don’t follow the same rhythms and are more frightening and unpredictable because of it.

The “Kubrickian” label applies in this sense, but Glazer takes that influence and turns it on its head as well, as there’s a more open and intuitive sense to Johansson picking up men, with many of the scenes on Scottish streets being shot on the fly without the knowledge of the people around it. And while Stephanie Zacharek has already mentioned in her excellent review of how the nudity feels more akin to Eadweard Muybridge’s anthropological stills than horror or even art-house films, but there’s also a sense of making Muybridge’s humane and curious photos into something more outlandish and terrifying.

Glazer’s most daring gambit is taking one of the world’s most glamorous movie stars and defamiliarizing her. In the polar opposite of her performance in Her, in which her body is removed but her warm and lively presence remains, Johansson appears as a living abyss, something that mimics human behavior without understanding it or ever fully achieving it, all for a cruel and deadly purpose. Many praise actors or actresses as brave whenever they appear onscreen nude (as Johansson does here), but the real fearlessness in her performance is the willingness to appear blank and inscrutable, allowing the viewer to project their thoughts and feelings onto her in any attempt to find out what’s going on in her head.

For the first hour, Under the Skin follows her lead, remaining horrifying and enigmatic up to the point where Johansson picks up a deformed victim without realizing there’s anything strange to him, allowing him a kindness he hasn’t known that makes the knowledge of where this is heading all the more unbearable. And then the film shifts. It develops a more defined narrative that orients us more than the previous hour. Johansson turns from predatory to a lost, confused and lonely soul more curious about human behavior and aching for a connection.

Thematically, this shift is totally in keeping with the rest of the film. Glazer covers the universality of loneliness, the control of sexuality and body image (and the loss of control), and the frustration of all of the above. Glazer and Johansson handle the shift deftly, as she tries to embrace her body, her sex, the human senses. It’s a path not unlike that of Jeff Bridges in Starman, only without ever being able to transition to human experience.

The only trouble is that while this section is beautifully realized, not to mention still singular and audacious compared to most films, it can’t help but feel conventional compared to what’s come before. Even as the film moves towards a haunting finale, there’s a feeling of familiarity that was gloriously absent from the early going. It’s a relative disappointment, however, and one that may fall away with repeat viewings (this is a film that defies instantaneous reactions). Even if Under the Skin falls short of near-perfection, it still feels like one of the major film achievements of the year.

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