Thursday, March 27, 2014

Under the Skin

The first time I heard of Under the Skin was at the Venice film festival. I was talking to a British journalist, who works for FRED film radio and the BBC: “This is one of the worst films I have ever seen!” She went on and on: “I don’t know how this got made. What was Jonathan Glazer thinking?” Later that day, the film was booed by a large part of the audience at the gala screening with Jonathan Glazer and Scarlett Johansson in attendance. Others, including many British critics, came out of the screening correctly singing its praises.

Unfortunately I did not manage to see the polarizing film in Venice. I didn’t manage to see it in London either. I had to wait until it was released in the UK last week. At the time of writing I have seen it twice within 5 days, and I’m strongly considering going again. It is that good.

An alien (Scarlett Johansson) drives around Glasgow in a white van. Her (or its?) mission is to pick up random men and lure them back to her house (spaceship? space?) where they are then, for the lack of a better word, “consumed” by some sort of extra-terrestrial sludge. If this does not sound strange enough, know that large portions of it were filmed with hidden cameras, using unknowing passer-by’s as actors. It is difficult and unnecessary to say more about the story, so I will leave it at this.

The most impressive thing about Under the Skin is the way in which Jonathan Glazer combines the gritty hyper-real and the slick, crazy surreal almost seamlessly through superb visuals and sound design. Comparisons have been made with Lynch, Kubrick or von Trier, but none of them are really satisfactory. Under the Skin is something different, a true original. Every image looks and feels right. Mica Levi’s mesmerizing, creepy score helps to join the different elements and creates a haunting atmosphere throughout the film. The importance of the music cannot be overstated and the recurring three note theme will burn itself onto your brain and haunt you in your worst nightmares.

What is it all about though? The answer to this depends on the spectator. If you are looking for answers and explanations, you will be disappointed. Glazer merely presents this story and encourages the audience to think. There are several ways to look at it. It could be a film about the strangeness of human behaviour. Seeing an alien imitate humans, clearly not understanding them, makes us realise how weird we must look to an outsider. In this sense, the film has the same effect as repeating the same word over and over, until it feels completely unnatural. There also is an interesting gender discourse within the film.

Scarlett Johansson’s performance is nothing short of brilliant; possibly the best of her career. It is an extremely physical achievement. She uses her entire body in a way she has never done before. Every gesture is full of meaning. She always seems slightly uncomfortable in her skin in the way she holds herself, slightly dropping her shoulders, the arms dangling loosely at her side. It is an extremely difficult performance to pull off, because her character’s main function is to be looked at. She is a passive character and she is the subject of her victims’ gaze, of the camera’s gaze and finally of her own gaze. About halfway through, she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror and starts to develop an interest in her body. Mirrors are a recurring element, emphasizing the “fakeness” of her body. This stands in complete contrast to her character Spike Jonze’s Her (in which she was miscast), in which she also played a non-human form of intelligence with a desire to become human. Unlike the bodiless operating system Samantha, the unnamed alien of Under the Skin is primarily defined through her physical presence.

Under the Skin is a film that is very difficult to describe and impossible to put into a fixed category. It contains genre elements (science-fiction, erotic thriller, social realism) without belonging to any of them. Watching it is a strange, hypnotic experience and I haven’t been this captivated and fascinated by a film since Ming Liang Tsai’s Stray Dogs. Films like this remind me, why I love cinema so much. It will however divide people. Many will hate it, many will not understand it. In my opinion, it is the best film of 2014 so far.


Also on cine-jambalaya: The alienating realism of Under the Skin

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