Thursday, May 22, 2014


Under the Skin

Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Written by Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer

     What a surreal, psychological trip Under the Skin is. I watched director Jonathan Glazer's existential science-fiction, horror film a week ago and it has not really left my mind since that viewing. It is quite powerful, but not over bearing or too arty. It results in many unanswered questions. It is mesmerizing, sensual, horrific, frustrating, engaging and immersive. I said it was a science-fiction, horror film, but one that is unlike anything made before. It feels has if Glazer paid an impressive tribute to Kubrick, Lynch, Jodoworsky and Roeg, and created his own link in this chain of undeniably, distinct great filmmakers. Under the Skin is one haunting damn film that will stick with me for quite some time and, at the same time, will be one that requires multiple viewings.
     An unnamed Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human form that seduces passersby on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland. She brings them back to a vacant house. Once she is in the house, she slowly walks, unclothing, as do her male counterparts, walking over a glossy black mass. The men seep into this eerie black liquid while she walks undisturbed. She is feeding something. An urge. A hunger. A hidden ship or father alien. A seduction and extermination of sexually obsessed men with nothing more on their mind. No reason is fully given, but these continuous scenes engage the audience to uncover the deeper meanings, dissect the varying masculine and feminine symbolism, and attempt to unlock any figurative suggestions that the filmmaker is putting forth. The real questions is, what is being said?
     The first half of the film is strictly Johannson driving around Scotland picking up strangers and bringing them back to this house. Once she picks up a shy, deformed young man, she begins to feel some sort of humanity and sympathy. She allows this man to not be ravaged by this black substance and frees him from this feeding. This enrages her counterpart, another unnamed character, the man on the motorcycle. He appears to be some kind of leader or boss over Johansson's character. Once she has freed the deformed man, she is on the run, not in a panicked, commercial thriller way, but in this artful, highly beautiful, haunting situational dilemma. Her journey from hunter to hunted rounds out the film, and her identity is uncomfortable unveiled towards the end. The big point is that realization of having no feeling or understanding of where you are at, to feeling compassion, discovery and fear in this foreign world.
     I will fully admit that I left the cinema somewhat confused, full of questions and a little frustrated, but in a good way. This is a film that requires multiple viewings. What is the deeper significance of sex and the bad versus good nature of human beings, or foreign ones? What is it like to be required to perform a service and then go against the grain in the passion and confusion of new discoveries? Is it a film that has deeper meanings, but is equally and specifically focused on pushing the boundaries of style and sound in film? Is it a film that shows the objectification of woman as merely sex objects in the view of brute, disgusting males? So many questions that outweigh the answers. That is one of the joys and discouraging pleasures of Under the Skin.
     The questions will only be enhanced, or caught, through more discussion and analysis with more viewings. It is undeniable that Ms. Johansson gives a subdued, yet powerful, engaging performances. It is probably her best work and she is striped down, both literally and emotionally. There are many scenes where she is fully nude and I hope this film is not fully watched just for that. There is so much more amazement with this film then Ms. Johansson's nudity. She has few lines, but what she does with her eyes, body and gestures is quite stunning. She appears to be so natural on Earth, but ironically is not from this planet. She has put on a suit of beauty to acquire her task. A facade to drain and hide. She speaks with a charming English accent when seducing her passersby. However, these men speak with an almost indecipherable thick Scottish accent and this really speaks to the barriers between these different beings. The range she gives form the first half of the film where she is picking up en, to when she is on the run and going through the varying discoveries of her human skin and body is seriously fine, haunting work.
     Glazer, who has not directed a film since 2004 with Birth, has one artistically, stylized vision. The references earlier of Kubrick, Lynch, Jodoworsky and Roeg are evident from the visuals; to the mesmerizing opening sequence of her eye, and more, that is something magnificent to witness on the big screen; to the haunting, penetrating, brooding score from Mica Levi. Everything can be seen as an homage to these great filmmakers, but Glazer has created a work of his own, full of multiple textures and meanings. A film that will be polarizing to some and something of a masterpiece to others. I fall into the latter category, even if I feel I need more viewings, which is always a good thing. One of the amazing things about this film is that I cannot wait to see it again, even though there are some highly disturbing moments. Especially the one with the family at the coast. Seriously chilling and unsettling.
     And yes, that score from Levi is something to behold. It is without a doubt one of the most haunting things I have heard since Jonny Greenwood's brilliant work on Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. The music is so key to the ebbs and flows of this film. The mood is set, enhanced and evolutionary with every striking string, deep breath and pounding beat. It has stuck with me since the film and I got the films soundtrack from a friend immediately after seeing the film. It is so special, terrifying and is flat-out genius. With that score, the moody, grayish cinematography from Daniel Landin is a perfect fit as well. I could look at this film with just the score and cinematography, and be completely satisfied. All elements are working at the highest form in this film.
     Under the Skin is one of the best films of 2014. When a film holds my attention completely, asks the audience, and myself, to be so engaged in every line and scene, and causes serious mental aptitude in its dissection, I am fully appreciative and thoroughly pleased. It is a shockingly beautiful art film, haunting horror film and mystifying science-fiction film, all in the realm of deep existentialism. All elements work beautifully and Scarlett Johansson gives an astonishing, muted, brilliant performance. Under the Skin will not be for everyone, but this is the type of film I love and one I am dying to see again.

Photo credit by IMDB.

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