' Cinema Romantico: Under The Skin

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Under The Skin

“Under the Skin” stars Scarlett Johansson, but it’s a different Scarlett Johansson than the cinema is used to seeing. Director Jonathan Glazer relies on his leading lady’s movie star essence (her technical name is "Laura" but that's mere IMDB arbitariness), the voluptuousness so often caught in repose on the covers of grocery aisle rags, and then employs those expectations against the audience. She’s still beautiful, sure, but her hair is covered in a messy black wig and she ambles everywhere in acid washed jeans, as if she just went through someone’s rummage sale from the 80’s. She’s an alien Scarlett Johansson – quite literally, in fact, portraying a sort of intergalactic succubus. But she’s also metaphorically an alien, a stranger in a world she struggles to comprehend, alternately intrigued and repulsed, blindly feeling her way, ultimately an extra-terrestrial standing in for all us terrestrials.

The opening sets the tone, a purposely disorienting series of allusive shots eventually building to a human eyeball staring out from the screen. That’s Scarlett’s eye. She’s staring out at us and we’re staring back at her. After all, her foremost role in the film is coquettishly coaxing random Scottish males to a safe house that isn’t safe, leaving them suspended in a mood-lit hereafter that is never amply explained. That it isn’t is fine, because what it precisely is probably doesn't matter as much as the fact that many men (and women?) would willingly follow Ms. Johansson into the blackened quicksand the same as any of these saps on screen. And so “Under the Skin” sets up as an observance of what’s on the outside – precisely, the allure and inalienable sexuality of its primary actress. We look at her as an object of affection – and beyond, into that uncomfortable territory fantasy object – and, thus, the film presses us on our need to objectify while simultaneously demonstrating there can be more to mere allure.


Frankly, that would be enough thematic context for any film, but “Under the Skin” is far from any film, its ambition reaching for the stars from which its exotic alien fell. As means to fetter her prey, she drives around the cities and the countryside of a gray, rainy, Scotland, the soundtrack either disconcertingly screeching or thumping like a more hostile version of the aliens in "Contact", stopping to ask for directions. This, however, is also a clear evocation of her as a tourist. Glazer’s camera repeatedly captures her people-watching, and so the audience is made to watch the people too, men and women with infinite complacency moving to and fro about their little affairs. “Under the Skin” initially seeks to put us at a remove and is successful, building a world of cruel and often casual indifference, but as this happens, the film subtly draws us into its repetitive rhythm.

Eventually one of her pickup attempts goes awry with the best intentions, specifically because his situation rouses sympathy within her, a sensation on which she chooses to act even if she can’t quite process her reason for doing so. But she wants to, and so her character from a galaxy far, far away takes tentative stabs at humanizing her(it?)self. Upon doing so, the film turns and so rather than watching Scarlett watch us, we begin to watch with her.

It is to Glazer's credit that he can make a film of such gender specificity while still rendering an ultimately universal product by inviting the audience to re-experience its own humanness through his character’s eyes. She eats chocolate cake, she makes love (has sex), she feels the rain fall against her face, she lopes through a castle that has stood for hundreds of years and feels the immense weight of a planet’s past. In the back of the film, however, she essentially comes face to face with her own sins and screw-ups, a point at which every human – real or vessel – eventually finds him or herself. It’s nerve-wracking, the dark heart of humanity made to bear and our belief in the goodness of this world goes where it always goes.........up in smoke.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Great review man, love hearing that you were as transfixed by the film as I was. I saw this a few months ago and it still hasn't left my mind. A sort of hypnotic mindfuck masterpiece.