Friday, April 18, 2014
BLACK WIDOW: a review of "Under The Skin"
Based upon the novel Under The Skin by Michel Faber
Screenplay Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars)
I have a strong feeling that even for some of the most adventurous movie goers out there, this film will be especially confounding.
Once the end credits scroll completed at the conclusion of "Under The Skin," the latest film from Director Jonathan Glazer, I truly began to wonder exactly what in the hell I was going to be able to write to you. Indeed, I was tremendously affected by the film which is uncomfortable, unsettling, disturbing, and downright creepy as well as visually arresting and completely unlike anything I have seen since the inception of Savage Cinema. It is not a film that I can honestly say that I liked or even disliked, for that matter. But it is unquestionably an effective film that will certainly challenge your perceptions of what exactly a motion picture experience can actually be.
I am warning you right up front that "Under The Skin" is not for everyone, unapologetically so at that. But, if you want to see something that is indeed the definition of "original," then I would not stand in your way at all, and I even encourage you to try this film for yourselves. You may love it or you may even detest it but you will have a reaction.
"Under The Skin" stars Scarlett Johansson as...well...a nameless extraterrestrial who has found her place on Earth in Scotland and under the watchful eye of another alien, who has taken on a human form and is dressed in motorcycle garb. After submerging herself into the very skin of a deceased woman, Johansson's alien begins to prowl the streets in a vehicle, picking up strange men and luring them to join her through her considerable feminine wiles. With the suggestion and then the promise of sex, Johansson's alien further lures the men into an undisclosed location where she tricks them into finding themselves submerged into some sort of a black liquid that keeps them in some sort of stasis before their human flesh is harvested. And then, Johansson's alien goes back on the hunt once more...
For the most part, this is indeed the arc of "Under The Skin," a film that despite the scant nature of its plot and even lack of an actual story, proves itself to be a haunting experience that certainly sticks instead of floating off into the cinematic ether. First of all, the film is exquisitely shot by Cinematographer Daniel Landin, who, in this day of films that are wildly over-directed with all manner of everything money can buy launched at the silver screen, shows exactly how to create a sinister, unfamiliar and therefore alien landscape out of what is so seemingly recognizable and without an over-reliance upon special effects. Combined with the film's striking visual palette is the fantastic music score by Composer Mica Levi, which will definitely send chills up and down your spine repeatedly. The name of the iconic Stanley Kubrick has been invoked in regards to the tonality of this film and I suppose to some degree I could agree with the assessment as "Under The Skin" is so unrepentant in its near clinical approach to the storytelling and Frazen has indeed made a film that really functions as a visual experience, much like Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), as it just provides the imagery and we are left to piece together exactly what it all may mean.
With that in mind, I feel that in collaboration with his team, Jonathan Frazen has created an extremely frigid film. There is no warmth to be had or found and after a spell, you do realize how effectively he has placed us within the perspective of Scarlett Johansson's alien character as we are witnessing all of the experiences through her eyes--or at least the eyes of the human figure's skin she has appropriated for herself.
Contributing to fully realizing the emotion of an alien world although we are on Earth, "Under The Skin" is a film that contains essentially no actual dialogue. Yes, there is some speaking here and there as Johansson's alien picks up one man after another and engages in some small talk in order to fully capture them for her consumption. But through the thickness of the Scottish accents of the men, the English language sounds nearly indecipherable, and therefore actual human speech to existing as nothing more than another sound to add along to the sounds of passing cars, raindrops and footsteps. Yet another element that made viewing this film such an anxious experience, even though the film as a whole is so quiet.
Scarlett Johansson truly gives a performance unlike anything she has ever achieved before. While I am not certain if it was necessarily a great performance it was one that is truly unforgettable and even unprecedented as this film strips every element of warmth away, so surprising considering how warm of an actress she actually is. Even in Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013), a film where she is not even seen, we are able to gather a world of emotions solely through the effectiveness and power of her voice. But now, Johansson has to rely on a completely different set of tools as her character is entirely unknowable and operates with absolutely no known motive, making her exist as some kind of a malevolent force much like Javier Bardem achieved in The Coen Brothers' brutally grim masterpiece "No Country For Old Men" (2007).
In some ways, perhaps Johansson's portrayal is a way for Frazen to provide the film with a sharp cultural critique regarding the sexual attitudes between men and women, the means of seduction, why men are seduced, what are men truly seduced by and the consequences of succumbing to said seduction. With that, "Under The Skin" could possibly be seen as some sort of a revenge film and one in which there is no graphic violence on display at that. Or at least it may be one that rallies against the subjugation and objectification of women and thus turns the tables on men who are easily taken in by a young woman with full red lips, a tight low cut shirt and the promise of clandestine sexual fulfillment. In this film, Johansson is the merciless and emotionless predator and men are the unsuspecting prey.
With that, is "Under The Skin" even an exploration of lust itself? This is a film that does carry its fair share of nudity, from Scarlett Johansson certainly but mostly, from the men she lures into her trap. Yes, for those who are interested in this sort of thing, most of the nudity in the film is full frontal male nudity, a rarity. "Under The Skin" also often feels like the inverse of a traditional horror or slasher film, where scantily clad women are punished, murdered and dismembered for openly acknowledging their own sense of sexuality. With "Under The Skin," Frazen has created a bad dream-like landscape, but sticking with the horror film comparisons, this time the men are the ones punished for exhibiting any signs of sexuality. One sequence, which features Johansson's alien's first two victims trapped underneath in the strange stasis liquid, nakedly regard each other with a sense of existential despair knowing full well their erect penises got them into this mess from which there is no escape.
But then, the film takes a couple of even stranger turns. When Johanssson's alien picks up her latest victim, a man with a severely disfigured face like The Elephant Man, she shows mercy. And then, the final third of the film involves her relationships with two different men; one who exhibits kindness and another who wishes her intense harm. From this point, Johansson's alien's predatory instincts fail her or they are at least compromised, which makes me wonder if "Under The Skin" is also examining exactly what it means to be human? That the complexity of the human experience means that some can show compassion with no expectations or destructive, hurtful tendencies with no provocation and just as easily and equally. Johansson's explorations and building curiosity of Earth and humans are also placed under the increasingly sinister eyes of her motorcycle clad watchers, thus creating an even greater danger for our leading character as well as elevating the sense of anxiety the film weaved in such an arresting manner.
But who really knows what "Under The Skin" is ultimately about anyway as it is a film that is so poetic, impressionistic and does keep the viewer at an arms length. Whatever the film is actually all about is up to each and every viewer as there is really nothing to even cling to except for the striking visuals. I can express to you that throughout the film, I was extremely unsettled and unnerved. For a film this somnambulant, "Under The Skin" would have easily been trance inducing if it was not so genuinely frightening. I was kept at rapt attention, even when absolutely nothing was occurring on the screen. Yet, Frazen ensured that the rhythms of the film kept me (and I would imagine all of you) completely off balance and at times, upended. But I do applaud Frazen for creating a cinematic universe that felt to be so complete and so foreign that the return to the real world was jarring as well as welcoming.
Jonathan Frazen's "Under The Skin" is a film that I am certain many of you will find to be impenetrable. It will require heavy lifting from the audience but I do think the effort is more than worth it as the experience was an honest one as well as being a wholly unique one, unlike anything else currently playing at your local theaters. I strongly feel that art is not always designed to make audiences feel comfortable and this film is as uncomfortable as it gets. Frankly, it even may infuriate some of you but even so, shouldn't art provoke and challenge as well as entertain?
"Are we dreaming?" asks the disfigured young man as he approaches the nearly naked and awaiting alien so memorably portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Perhaps so, as "Under The Skin" is indeed one elegant, crystalline nightmare.