Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Under The Skin

2014, d. Jonathan Glazer - netflix

(Hey! Spoilers ahead!)

It's astonishing to me that this is only Jonathan Glazer's third film in 14 years, astonishing and a little saddening.  Sure, Glazer has a whole other astounding career as a music video and TV commercial director, but his cinematic hand is so refined that every year that goes by without another Glazer production is a genuine loss for cinephiles the world over.  Sexy Beast marked his auspicious arrival in 2000, a decidedly lower-key British gangster movie that seemed almost a pointed counterpoint to Guy Ritchie's hyperactive, darkly comedic genre pictures.

Beast had elements of music video composition (the opening sequence, playing to The Strangler's "Peaches", followed a giant boulder rolling downhill past a sunbaked Ray Winstone, into his hillside swimming pool) and photography, all established within its opening minutes, but beyond that Glazer drew out astounding performances,  a career resurrecting one for Ben Kingsley (about as far away from Gandhi as you can get).

Nobody was certain what to expect from Glazer's follow-up, but I doubt Birth, 4 years later, was exactly what anyone had in mind.  I was a methodical and tense drama about a woman coming to terms with the death of her husband, and his possible resurrection inside the body of an 10-year-old boy.  The film was positively Kubrickian, in both the meticulousness of the direction and the somewhat unruliness of the story.  It scaled back on the music video elements, straying away from the mixtape soundtrack, instead accompanied by a lavish score by Alexandre Desplat.  Again the opening sequence is a marvel, melding music and imagery, a 2-minute tracking shot of a man jogging through central park in the winter, before cutting to the title card.

From there it's a slow burn through Nicole Kidman's internal distress.  The film requires that you to buy into Kidman's reaction to this young boy claiming to be her husband, especially that her emotional attachment to him at this stage is clearly unhealthy but still honest.  Where Sexy Beast's fantastical elements (the boulder, the heist) are subversive and only marginally weird, certainly not enough to distract from the central emotional conflict, Birth puts the fantastical as the center of the conflict and asks you to believe in its reality, at least enough to question it.

Under The Skin, Glazer's long-awaited third effort, has equal parts that Kubrickian meticulousness and a fascinating improvisational stream.  This one abandons emotional conflict almost entirely (at least until the third act), and instead just asks you to embrace its weirdness, its fantasy.  It seems that no Glazer film can open without a brilliant opening sequence, and here it's a marvel (embed of the video was disabled) of lights and darkenss, circles and halos, eyes and irises, all underpinned by an audiocollage of language and noise and Mika Levi's haunting, screeching score.  It's as bold a title sequence as that of Gaspar Noe's Into The Void or David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: bracing, daring you to continue.

What follows has no clear intention, nothing is spelled out.  It's all intonation and what you take with you.  On a seamlessly white stage, Scarlett Johansson strips a dead woman of her clothes and puts them on.  She gets into a white van and scopes out the streets of Glasgow for, essentially, a victim.  Once she finds her mark, a man with little connections, no real kids or family to speak of, she takes them back to a deserted barn.  Once inside the extremely black room with its glossy black floor, she seduces them.  They follow her breadcrumb trail of clothing, disrobing themselves, stepping forward into darkness, unable to take their gaze off her, unaware of their sinking surroundings.  We learn what happens to these men.  Why?  That's never the clear part, but it's also not really relevant.

There's an extremely potent allegory at play here, as Johansson, in her beefy, bulky white van cruises the street for prey, one cannot help but think of how uncommon it is that a woman is the predator in this manner.  Even though we know she's an alien -- and in that there's the unknown of what she actually is, or what she's capable of -- we still can't help but feel that she's vulnerable just because she's a woman.  Glazer shot these scenes with hidden cameras, with Johansson approaching men on the street (but first waiting for them to be alone or at least distantly separated from a crowd) and conversing with them.  It was a bold choice that is equally distracting and effectively unsettling.  It takes three rounds of abductions before the audience can ease into Johansson's identity as the predator, then feel some sense of anxiety for the fate of the men, but even then it's only because at that stage her victim is a young, shy, lonely man with facial neurofibromatosis.  At that point as well, Johansson's alien is starting to find some connection to humanity, and it lets the man go before it flees into the Scottish Highlands, away from it's motorcyle-driving handlers.

In the Highlands it's greeted with kindness and hospitality by a bachelor, who gives it shelter and food.  The unease of vulnerability is still there, for both of them.  Will ScarJo's alien return to its mission and take advantage of this stranger, or is the stranger taking advantage of the attractive, mysterious woman through the guise of kindness.  Much has been made in advance of Johansson's nudity in advance of the picture, however the sort of defining moment, as the alien examines its female form in the mirror, the film presents Johansson as, plainly, a woman.  In the moment, she's not a superstar, not a pique specimen of femininity or attractiveness, not an object of sexual desire, but rather a representation of the female form, of the human body, of flesh and skin and what it looks and feels like to be alive.

As the creature experiences things for the first time with the samaritan, it also experiences genuine attraction, and, for the first time, it willingly engages, not seduces, only to discover that it is not a whole woman.  It panics and flees into the woods, eventually finding a trail, only to come across a logger with a less than comforting disposition.  It finds a hiking shelter where it curls up to sleep.  It awakens to find its being molested by the logger and it flees, only to be savagely pursued.  It's that undercurrent of fear that permeated the film from the onset, that in spite of the creature's predatory nature, as it's in the skin of a woman, an it exists in a world where its viewed as prey.  The logger, tearing at its clothing also tears at its skin, revealing its inhuman blackness beneath.  The allegory that rape is dehumanizing in full play, but the ultimate denigration, the logger, in abject terror of what he's encountered, douses the alien with gasoline and sets it aflame and walks away.  It's a vessel for his pleasure and disposable when of no use.  It's a sickening moment that the film ends on, watching the creature burn in the snow, any trace of humanity burned away.

The film is one of perpetual unease, a moody (or perhaps moodless) art-piece that isn't so much a story as a concept, a 2-hour art installation about male sexuality in its various forms - primal, tender, brutal - masquerading as entertainment.  For those receptive to such things, it's a must-watch.  For those looking to be engaged more directly, you know, with dialogue, and plot, and action, well, it falls far away from the conventional.

(Read David's take)