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Friday, May 23, 2014

Under the Skin

Whoa.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

“An alien seductress preys upon the population of Scotland.” So says, the IMDB anyway. Personally, I think it's about whatever you want it to be about.

What we thought.

Well... this is a tough one.

Straight off the bat, before I try and wrap my head around explaining why Under the Skin is such a powerful piece of cinema, we have to get one thing out of the way first: if you are looking for a film with an identifiable narrative structure – you know, a story – then, please, for the love of all that is holy and unholy, avoid this film like the plague. To compare it to a similarly arty Scarlet Johansson vehicle, Under the Skin makes Lost in Translation look like a densely plotted thriller, packed to the gills with thrills, spills, twists and turns. This is impressionist filmmaking at it's most impressionistic and, as such, really isn't for everyone.

Indeed, to be entirely honest, this sort of thing is seldom my bag either. Under the Skin is reminiscent of Kubrick at his most abstract and Lynch at his most weird, but it's most comparable to the poetic latter day work of Terrence Malick. The only difference is that while I find things like The Tree of Life and To the Wonder to be a true chore to sit through, I was entirely enraptured by the poetic, often dialogue-free dreaminess of Under the Skin. Here's the major difference, I think: while Malick's beautiful, pretentious, artful, artsy filmmaking is laced through with austerity and earnestness, Jonathan Glazer's beautiful, pretentious, artful, artsy filmmaking is laced through with bug-eyed intensity and batshit insanity.

Glazer, whose previous work includes the now increasingly mainstream-looking Birth and Sexy Beast, has crafted a beautiful, hypnotic and enigmatic work of art that meshes the breathtaking, though quite damp beauty of Scotland with creeping horror, alienation and an astounding soundtrack that shocks and startles at every turn. It largely keeps its genre trappings under wraps (or, quite literally, under the skin) but Glazer's vision is creepier than the creepiest horror films and more alienating than the most out-there science fiction.

Glazer steadfastly refuses to bow to mainstream conventions on any level. It would be unfair to say that Under the Skin is entirely lacking in story but it doesn't so much tell its story as it does hint at and gesture towards it in a way that leaves it entirely up to the viewer's imagination to fill in the blanks. Glazer is clearly trying to say something about alienation, about sexuality and about what it means to be human but the details are left entirely up to the viewer. We get that Scarlett Johansson's character is an alien life-force who sends unsuspecting male to their grizzly fates but everything beyond that – especially the major character change that happens halfway through the film - is left very much up in the air.

Much of the film's success and failures (if such words can be applied to such a film), therefore, lies mostly in the auteurial hands of its director and the technical experts he employs to bring both the visuals and the soundtrack to vivid life. His use of 1970s science fiction special effects, for example, are both a strong contrast and a perfect compliment to his decision to use non-actors as the male victims - the car in which Johansson's character drives around was fitted with hidden cameras to capture the reactions of real-life, heavily accented Scots reacting to the vision of Scarlett Johansson's out-of-place movie star good looks and, considering the location, quite other-worldly presence. The latter is an incredibly audacious, ambitious move that largely succeeds beautifully.

And that brings us to the film's other secret weapon: Scarlett Johansson. All the brilliant work that Glazer and his team put into the film would have been undone completely had they used just about any other actress. It's true that Johansson puts in a genuinely incredible performance here but there are a number of terrific actresses who could do something similar. What she really brings to the table though, is a unique physicality that combines a genuinely earthly sexuality with an almost other-worldly sense of beauty. The intense focus on her could be seen as simple lasciviousness but it's clearly (or hopefully) a lot more than that as Glazer somehow uses her very physical presence to get some of his points across.

Also, while Scarlett Johansson is unquestionably one of the most beautiful and sexy women on the planet, there is something about her in Under the Skin that may be physical but is of a physicality that is more... focused, more pointedly refined than even her considerable natural assets (there's no way for this not to sound at least a little dirty and more than a little pervy) manage to achieve alone. In other words, part of it has everything to do with the usual male, hot-blooded reaction to Scarlett Johansson - and an occasionally quite undressed Scarlett Johansson, at that - but there's clearly a whole lot else going on here as well. What it is exactly, I can't say, but either way, her work here is quite literally (well, sort of literally - though definitely punnily) out of this world – a phrase that, incidentally, fits the movie itself to a tee.

And, no, I'm not going to assign a star-rating to this movie. Frankly, I wouldn't even know where to begin.

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