Friday, 21 March 2014

Review: Under The Skin

I knew that I was taking a gamble with this one before I even walked into the cinema.

Newly released at the time of writing (March 2014), Under The Skin (trailer) is a hot topic in the UK film world. For one thing, the film marks the end of a decade-long hiatus from English director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). I'd never heard of Glazer, but I am told by Sight & Sound that he is ' of Britain's most exciting filmmakers.' Gee whiz, I thought. Maybe this could be good.

I had also heard that Under The Skin ignited high passions at its Venice Film Festival premiere: some critics cheered in exultation ('...a tour de force of sensory and sensual filmmaking...') while others booed in condemnation ('...torpid and silly...')

I do like seeking out polarizing films. Worst-case scenario is that I learn what the controversy is all about, and best-case is that I end up being one of the ones who loves it.


Under The Skin begins with the form of a dead Scarlett Johannson being assumed by a being. Film critics unanimously identify that the being is an alien, although it could just as likely be a ghost or a demon or something.

The being, which I will henceforth call Scarlett, spends most of the movie driving around the Scottish highlands in an unmarked white van. Her van is constantly followed by a motorcycle-driving cohort (Jeremy McWilliams). Is he also an alien/clone/golem/whatever? Maybe, I can't tell.

Scarlett lures several male characters into a dark, expressionistic room where they sink into and become entrapped in a tar-like floor. Are the victims getting killed? Is this real, or is it a Rosemary's Baby-esque figurative representation of something else?

Is this how Scarlett and the possible other shapeshifter/android/warlock thing eat? If they feed on people, does that introduce the possibility that they are vampires?

If Under The Skin knows the answer to any of these questions, it's not telling.

My Take

As you can probably tell from my attempt at a synopsis, this film is very scant on plot and character information. In fact, it's less a 'feature film' than it is a story-less art film. A good chunk of its runtime consists of ponderous, wordless shots of random passersby, stretches of open road and our lead's face.

Plus whatever this is.

Some critics insist that Scarlett has a character arc, but the sheer lack of character information to support their claims seems only to point up their vivid imaginations. The Michel Faber source novel has a much more defined story, but considering this in relation to the film adaptation would be extracurricular cheating.

I kept puzzling over the logic regarding Scarlett's behavior. I know that she is meant to be a stranger learning about our world, but I have no idea what Scarlett already knows, and what she has yet to find out. In the final bit of the film we see her stare in bemusement at a television screen and struggle to negotiate a spiral staircase; but earlier we see her drive, speak English fluently and traverse a different staircase easily. How come she knows some of these simple things, and not others? How come she knows anything at all?

Clearly the filmmakers don't intend for its audience to think about the details as much as I did, but it's really hard for me to get into a movie when I feel like it isn't meeting me halfway. There isn't a voiceover, text-exposition, dialogue, or any other kind of hint as to what's going on.

But there is Scarlett Johannson making a blank face...

That's the one.

One of the much-mooted creative decisions behind the making of Under The Skin is that much of the filming was done on the street, in secret, and from within a real van. All the Scottish people had no clue that they were being filmed, and were oblivious to the movie-star identity of the strange white-van-woman with the darkened hair and passable English accent.

Knowing this behind-the-scenes fact led to an odd viewing experience for me. In an early shopping mall-set sequence, the shoppers surrounding Scarlett seemed alive in a way no movie crowd does. The people were sprawling and meandering on their own agendas, and some quickly glanced at Scarlett as they passed her.

I thought: If these people can't recognize a Scarlett Johannson right under their noses, God only knows what kind of nastiness this creepy, stoic vampire will be able to get away with later in this film.

While I liked this foreboding aspect of the secret-filming technique at the beginning of Under The Skin, my opinion quickly changed when I saw Scarlett interact with the 'real' people. Where on any other movie the actors co-operate to create an illusory reality, Under The Skin had one woman acting out an illusory reality amidst dozens of completely unaware people just being normal in their 'real' reality. 

At one point Scarlett trips on a busy sidewalk and falls to the ground. She lies there face-down until a couple of kind people right her. Then she continues marching down the street. Instead of believe in the fiction of the movie, all I could think was: This is Scarlett Johannson playing a silly game all by herself.

While the regular people are emotive, helpful and solicitous of their time, the subject of this film - and one of its precious few actors - is a characterless cipher. I understand that the Scarlett character is meant to be an alien, but her behavior looks suspiciously - and perhaps conveniently - like lame, wooden acting.

DIY Under The Skin simulation: Shake your monitor around, stare at this image for 108 minutes, and imagine she's driving.

Like David Lynch's films, Under The Skin has a distinctively abstract style and an ardent critical fanbase. Also like David Lynch's films, I find Under The Skin to be poorly-acted and impenetrable.

I started to imagine what Under The Skin's goals were, based retroactively on the aspects of it that critics gushed about. My findings are as follows:

1.) The European setting, drab scenery, star power, experimental filming style and the fact that this is the long-in the works, much-anticipated return of a director means that critics will be convinced that there must be something to it - and even if they don't know what the 'something' is, the mystery itself is still super-amazing, somehow. (Little White Lies)

2.) The long takes and expressionistic imagery mean that some will even herald it as a hypnotic, Kubrickian masterpiece. ( The SkinnyThe Daily Telegraph)

Then I realized that maybe this whole film was secretly planned out to be The Great Scarlett Johannson Vanity Project. My evidence for thinking this is as follows:

1.) Scarlett Johannson's character in Under The Skin is an irresistible seductress. This maintains Johannson's sex-bomb reputation. (The Evening Standard)

2.) Sex-bomb reputation-having Johannson's 'alien adrift in a sea of regular people' character will invite parallels to Johannson's real-life superiority over us normies. (The Guardian)

3.) Johannson's face is present in most of the shots. This ensures maximum face-gaze time for the audience.

4.) Elongated shots of Johansson peering into mirrors mean that the audience gets to see two Scarletts simultaneously. This ensures even more face-gaze time for the audience.

5.) Johannson's character is the only person in the film to have flattering movie-makeup. This accentuates her face so that the audience will gaze at it more.

6.) Johannson's character seduces a disfigured man played by a real-life Neurofibromatosis sufferer. The juxtaposition of two-time Esquire 'Sexiest Woman Alive' Johannson with this man will accentuate the latter's flatteringly made-up face even more.

7.) Johannson's chic outfit and new hairstyle mean that populist magazines (Dazed & Confused) will do cover stories about her. These articles will be packed with photographs of her in her chic outfit and flattering makeup.

8.) The fact that Under The Skin is independent, English and made by an esteemed director mean that highbrow magazines (Sight & SoundThe New Yorker) will do cover stories about her. These articles will be packed with photographs of her in her chic outfit and flattering makeup.

9.) Johannson's active participation in the making of an independent, English film by an esteemed director will make her a discerning filmmaking force who deserves applause. (The Guardian)

10.) Scarlett Johannson has never played an alien before, so the critics (The Evening Standardwill hail her performance as a groundbreaking, applause-deserving expansion of her ability.

11.) Johannson appears nude a couple of times, so at least one critic (The Independent) will refer to her performance as 'brave'. 

I'm completely joking, of course. I don't even pretend to know what Scarlett Johannson and Jonathan Glazer's intentions were here; I'm just offering a play-by-play account of my wandering brain's failure to concentrate on Under The Skin.


Further Reading

For more about creepy predators, you can see my post about Peeping Tom.

Screengrabs: Under The Skin was produced by Film Four, the British Film Institute, Nick Weschler Productions, JW Films, Scottish Screen and UK Film Council, in association with Silver Reel, Creative Scotland and FilmNation Entertainment. Screengrabs were from the official trailer.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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