Under The Skin (2013): Written by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell, direct by Jonathan Glazer. Starring: Scarlett Johansson, and the entire nation of Scotland. Running Time: 108 minutes. Based on the novel by the same name by Michel Farber.
As most of you have no doubt heard by now, Under The Skin is one of those wholly unique experience movies that garner near-universal praise at film festivals but conversely seem doomed to cultural “irrelevance” for being “too arthouse” for mainstream viewers. Viewers who, it should be noted, are responsible for Transformers 4 currently holding the 2014 record for biggest opening weekend- truly, Brutus, the fault does indeed lie within ourselves. As a result, most cinemas worldwide did not bother showing the film for any extended period in time, and even in Germany, theaters had to be cajoled into showing it. At long last, a single showing (at a horror film festival, of all things) at a theater near me, and I can now partake in the rounds of “Well, what the hell was THAT about?” now circulating the internet concerning Jonathan Glazer's welcome distraction at the end of what has not been the hottest of all summers (but more on that in the next post).
An eye-like spaceship is our opening shot (possibly), descending close to Earth, as we begin to hear the unmistakable sounds of a woman (or perhaps not a woman) practicing human speech. After cutting to the planet’s surface, we see the selfsame woman being provided by a biker (wearing a uniform not unlike the Judoon from Doctor Who) with the dead body of another woman with a similar build and face. Naked, she takes off the cadaver’s clothes and puts them on herself. What follows could, perhaps, be labeled a montage- in and between various scenes, we are inundated with so many of the typical sights and sounds of city life, but despite the closeness of the camera, one can’t help but feel a hesitant distance, and the world we are all so familiar with begins to feel rather, well, alien.
This is a deliberate effect on the film’s part to quietly slide us out of our normal perceptions of each other as people, and to see us as the woman sees us, at least at first; as strange, amusingly exotic creatures, there to be manipulated and used for her own purposes. What that purpose is, I cannot exactly say. She drives around Scotland in a highly pedophiliac van, trying to convince men on the street to get in the car to give her directions. They are not random selections. She seems to only target men who walk alone, live alone, work alone, and are seemingly disconnected from any connections to other people. She lets them in and chats them up, and when they are willing (and horny) enough, they accompany her to her place, a room that seems to be darker and murkier than the deepest holes in space. She strips, backing away slowly, and they eagerly follow after her, but for some reason cannot reach her. Instead, they slowly sink to the floor that the woman seems to be able to effortlessly walk upon, which lurches around their bodies like some kind of sinister tar, and are pulled under. We see later on after one of these episodes what actually happens to these men. I will not divulge the information here, partially because it can barely be described, and also because, along with an accompanying scene on a beach in the movie’s first half, it is possibly the most ethereally unsettling experiences I’ve had in a theater this year, and its potent effect can only be felt to be understood.
This routine only seems to change when she actually doesn’t follow through with one of these clearly sexual encounters- after taking in a heavily disfigured young man, something moves her enough to let him go, and soon afterwards, to flee from the biker and his cohorts who can really only be described as her “handlers.” Soon, even though we know from the beginning (and are shown explicitly by the end) that this woman is not human, she begins to look and act as if she feels she is one. What this leads to I dare not spoil, for it is an intriguing and wonderfully shot exploration of the very idea of self, and whether or not that sense could, or even should, change over time.
Much has been made of the crisp, steady cinematography, which is stunning at its best and merely interesting at its worst, but I have thus far seen all too few reviewers lauding the soundtrack, an eerie collection of dissonance in string form that creates the feeling of a horror movie, even though I don’t know if this is a movie that could be classified under any genre. It is one of the best musical scores written for film this year, yet I already fear that this film’s determination to not bother making sense or explaining itself will scare away most major nominating committees. It is also a slow movie, which will bore or frustrate a great many, much like the other major, heavy thematic think piece of the year, The Wind Rises. Indeed, like with The Wind Rises, I felt the running time much more than I usually do when watching a movie. Whether that is the fault of the movie or my own for being tired is too hard to say, and for that reason, I felt it would be unfair to penalize the film for that in the above rating.
Truly, it is a think piece in every sense of the word. What to make of this woman and what she does? Is this a metaphor for human trafficking, or slavery, or prostitution, or even gender identities? We never know precisely why she is here targeting men, but it’s interesting to note than the movie deliberately does not go for physical stereotypes with its characters. Scarlett does not look airbrushed or digitally altered in her appearance, simply like a normally curved woman. And the men are hardly the sort of chiseled beefcakes we’ve come to expect from……well, pretty much everything these days. They are normal guys. Some thin, some thick, and all a little awkwardly gangly when naked. Also, why Scotland? Is the movie a subtextual message about how bored, lonely, sexually adventurous men and predatory women are the reason the country felt compelled to hold a referendum on independence?
Obviously, that particular interpretation is highly unlikely, but it speaks to the film’s opaqueness that I feel justified in being able to even suggest such a wildly outlandish idea. I don’t know yet if I love or just greatly respect Under The Skin, but I certainly don’t expect to see anything like it anytime soon. And given the degree of samey blandness we are offered regularly by studios in the film industry and by pop “artists” and their own handlers in the music industry, such unique events are to fully celebrated and embraced.
Actually…..wait a second, that’s it! The film is an expose of the ruthless exploitation of female pop singers, taken by recording execs and forced into their preconceived straightjackets of musical sound and identity, brutally punished when they try to break free. It all makes sense now!
Oh who am I kidding, that’s probably not it. I think. Right?