Sunday, March 29, 2015

The alienating realism of Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin polarised critical and popular opinion from the moment it hit the festival circuit in the autumn of 2013. About twelve months later, the film was hailed by many critics as one of the best of the year and it made an appearance in numerous top 10-lists. The lose adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel stars Scarlett Johansson as an unnamed alien preying on humans of the male variety in Scotland. During its difficult, decade-long production history, the project went through numerous iterations and transformations. The final result was produced for a relatively modest £8 million and takes an almost experimental approach to narrative filmmaking. In the following paragraphs, I will show how Under the Skin is innovative on a technical as well as a textual level in a number of ways, particularly in regards to its attitude towards realism.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its much debated use of non-professional actors and of hidden cameras. During the shoot, an almost unrecognisable Johansson would drive around the streets of Glasgow and strike up conversations with unknowing passers-by. In order to capture these scenes, the filmmakers installed ten small digital cameras throughout the driver’s cabin. All ten angles were filmed at the same time. Jonathan Glazer would meanwhile give instructions to Scarlett Johansson via an earpiece. This required some inventive work from the technical department (the cameras had to be inconspicuous) and the editor (due to the enormous amount of footage shot simultaneously). The concept itself is obviously nothing new. In an article for The Dissolve, Matt Singer discusses the history of the hidden camera-technique from 1948’s Candid Camera to more recent examples such as Borat (Larry Charles, 2006) or Great World of Sound (Craig Zobel, 2007). The main differences between Under the Skin and its predecessors are genre and purpose. The vast majority of Singer’s examples are comedies, frequently made for television. Others include reality-TV and investigative documentaries. Glazer takes this gimmick and applies it to narrative, dramatic cinema. In the process, the director asks fundamental questions about the nature of the medium. The concept of realism and the desire to depict reality on screen have occupied cinema and the discipline of film studies since their inception. Many current directors use handheld cameras and/or long takes to convey an illusion of the real, but Glazer erases (or at least blurs) the line between truth and fiction. During her travels through Scotland, the alien encounters a series of characters that are played by a mixture of amateur and professional actors. Crucially, the objective gaze of the camera remains neutral and the audience often can’t distinguish between the two; between naturalism and performance. The only person who is clearly acting is Scarlett Johansson. The star plays on her image as a glamourous Hollywood celebrity. Like the extra-terrestrial protagonist, she looks completely out of place in the rough, gritty environment of Scotland. Performance style and stardom are thus used as a means to make Johansson’s character stand out even more from her surroundings.

Under the Skin establishes an original form of realism through the use of hidden cameras, which Glazer exploits in a truly innovative manner. The film is defined by the juxtaposition of two polar opposites; as Jonathan Romney put it in Sight & Sound: ‘the surreal and the very concretely real.’ Glazer combines the real life people, landscapes and locations with fantastical images and Mica Levi’s mesmerising soundtrack. During the eye-creation sequence in the beginning and the devouring-scene later on, the imagery even veers into the abstract. We see a viscous liquid flow towards a bright, red rectangle followed by several seconds of flashing lights and incomprehensible images. The realism of Under the Skin does not attempt to draw the audience into the narrative or to highlight a particular social issue. On the contrary, it arguably takes on Brechtian qualities and serves as an alienation device. Looking at humanity from an outside (an alien) perspective is one of the main themes of the film. The alien struggles to understand, and later emulate, human behaviour, and as spectators, we empathise with her confusion. The environment of the shopping centre Johansson visits in an early scene is extremely real and familiar to most audiences, yet the scene strikes us as artificial and strange. After seeing the alien hesitantly pick out an outfit, there are several brief, voyeuristic shots of women having make-up applied. This suggests that their behaviour is just as absurd and unnatural as the alien’s. Another sequence, in which Johansson follows a man into a nightclub, works in a similar fashion. She is ushered onto the dancefloor by a flock of excited young women who communicate through indistinguishable chatter. Partying seems like a strange, exotic ritual throughout the entire sequence. Both these scenes were shot with hidden cameras at real life locations. Glazer thus manages to subvert the traditional meaning of realism and uses it to provide us with an outside perspective. In Under the Skin, the screen is not like window, but like fairground mirror rendering a skewed image of ourselves.

Read my original review of Under the Skin here.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review: Fifty Shades of Consumer Porn

Originally published in The Badger

Fifty Shades of Grey is absolutely ubiquitous at the moment. Wherever you turn or click, Mr. Grey seems to be ready to receive you now. The adaptation of E.L. James’ bestseller (which I haven’t read) has somehow managed to become the most talked about movie of 2015. Since its world-premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, Fifty Shades has been an unrestrained (no pun intended) success. In less than two weeks, the film has crossed the $400 million-mark worldwide and become the most successful 18-rated film of all time at the UK box-office. 

The film itself is a bit of a non-event really. It’s a solid, well-made piece of entertainment in which Dakota Johnson delivers a star-making performance as the initially wide-eyed Anastasia Steele. The notorious sex scenes meanwhile are surprisingly tame and conventional. The only reason they stand out is their frequency and duration. Mainstream cinema’s anxiety about full frontal nudity (particularly of the male variety) remains intact as Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) initiates Anastasia into the world of BDSM in his “playroom” for adults.

The sex may nevertheless be amusing and titillating, but one of the film’s more interesting aspects is its attitude towards consumerism. Christian, not the most complex character in the history of film and literature, can be summed up with three adjectives: handsome, confident and rich. His wealth is crucial to his seduction technique, as it allows him to impress Anastasia with a cornucopia of privilege. It begins with a new outfit and a new laptop, before quickly graduating to rare first-editions of her favourite novels and a brand new sports car. Her initial reservations about accepting these valuable presents (or bribes) are quickly overcome. Some of the most exhilarating moments are a lift in his private helicopter as well as a gliding-trip. 

These semi-successful attempts to buy her and her body are quite problematic, as they turn Anastasia into an object of consumption of sorts. Yet the film tends to romanticise them. The cinematic language displays a complete materialistic fetish for Christian’s possessions. Critic Mark Kermode fittingly labelled it “consumer porn.” As soon as we enter the billionaire’s luxurious penthouse, the camera is in complete awe of the gorgeous architecture and design. The modern furniture and the panoramic view of Seattle’s skyline become sexier than Jamie Dornan’s abs. In one of the film’s most beautiful and memorable shots, the couple consummate their relationship on a piano bench in front of a massive window, but all the action occurs in the corner of the frame. The lighting and the view dominate over the naughty activities at the edge of the screen. This emphasis on the inanimate object is even reflected in the “playroom.” The camera glides across the expensive-looking leather whips and handcuffs with relish and zooms in on the ornate bedposts she is tied to. Fifty Shades of Grey is a film about the appeal of the material. Would Anastasia engage with Christian’s unusual sexual preferences if he was merely a handsome accountant or artist? This film certainly doesn't seem to think so. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: Appropriate Behaviour-preview with Q&A

Appropriate Behaviour begins and ends with a twenty-something woman on a subway train. The woman’s name is Shirin, a bisexual Brooklynite with Iranian origins. Throughout the comedy, we come to know how she arrived on these two completely contrasting journeys on New York’s most popular means of public transportation. The result is reminiscent of Frances Ha and the recent works of Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On; Love is Strange). It is the kind of film in which the protagonist walks through the streets of New York holding a strap-on. 

The Duke of York’s recently hosted Desiree Akhavan, the writer, director and star of this debut feature, and I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the (almost) sold-out event. Akhavan, known for a webseries called The Slope and a guest appearance on the current season of Girls, was a funny and engaging presence for a lengthy Q&A session after the screening. The only let-down of the evening was that I didn't win one of the ten fashionable t-shirts promoting the film.

Let’s discuss the film first though. The story is told in a non-linear fashion on two parallel timelines. On the one hand, we see an unhappy, frustrated Shirin (Akhavan) drifting through life in search of a sense of direction. After a rough break-up, she is in desperate need of a new start. She begins to teach a film class to a group of fart-obsessed five year-olds and engages in a series of casual sexual encounters. These scenes are funny (in a typical, deadpan New York-way), sexy and usually painfully awkward. In the film’s most memorable sequence she hooks up with a random couple she meets at a bar. This will make you laugh and physically cringe at the same time. 

Shirin’s semi-successful attempts to deal with her break-up are interspersed with flashbacks of her once happy relationship with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). This half of the story is clearly weaker and lacks emotional impact. There are occasional laughs, but an increasingly serious, nostalgic mood permeates these scenes as they play like a generic romance. These flaws fortunately don’t take away from the entertainment value of the film. 

Its biggest virtue is honesty. Appropriate Behaviour is clearly an extremely personal project for Akhvan, but the film never becomes self-indulgent. She draws upon her own experience and opens up. She invites the audience into this strange, hip world of present-day Brooklyn in order to tell a universal story. Even the most ridiculous situations hold a core of emotional truth. We may not know what it feels like to be a bisexual Iranian in New York, but we understand her existential anxieties about identity, love and loneliness. 

During the Q&A, Desiree Akhavan asked a very poignant question: “Why do films about bisexuals or Persians always have to be like taking medicine?” With Appropriate Behaviour, she has managed to add a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down in a most delightful way. It’s a flawed, consistently funny (self-)portrait of a fascinating young woman.