31 Days of Halloween, art films, based on a book, Best of 2013, Birth, British films, cinema, co-writers, Daniel Landin, experimental film, film reviews, films, Jonathan Glazer, Movies, non-professional actors, Scarlet Johansson, Scarlett Johansson, sci-fi, sci-fi-horror, set in Scotland, Sexy Beast, Under the Skin, Walter Campbell, writer-director
Every great once in a while, a film comes along that completely blows my mind. I don’t necessarily mean this in the “what a great film” way but rather in the purer, more maddening “what the hell did I just watch” way. When I was younger, El Topo (1970), Holy Mountain (1973) and Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) were three films, off the top of my head, that pretty much challenged everything I thought I knew about movies (and maybe even life, to a certain extent). More recently, Toad Road (2012) and A Field in England (2013) twisted my brain into a million little knots, although I’ll freely admit that neither film has one tenth the massed weirdness of one of Jodorowsky’s epics. To this short-list of mind-melting cinema, go ahead and add Jonathan Glazer’s amazing, eye-popping visual spectacle, Under the Skin (2013), a film which manages to split the difference between arthouse and grindhouse, coming up with something that feels dreamlike, impossibly convoluted and languid, yet startlingly alive.
Despite lacking a conventional linear narrative, Under the Skin never feels slight or half-baked, although offering a plot description becomes a bit problematic. Suffice to say that the film involves an unnamed woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who drives around the Scottish countryside, picks up strange, unattached men (the unattached part, apparently, is quite important) and taking them back to her home. Once there, Johansson and the men undress, at which point the men appear to walk straight into some sort of all-consuming “blackness”: lather, rinse, repeat. As the film begins to take on some of the qualities of a phantasmagorical Groundhog Day (1993), other elements begin to drift to the forefront: a mysterious man on a motorcycle who appears to aid Johansson in her “job”…a strange, blue-lit “ocean” that appears to be of distinctly unearthly origin…a deformed “victim” who appears immune to whatever’s going on…throughout it all, the film relies on dialogue as little as possible, rendering the film closer to something like Kenneth Anger’s influential shorts rather than a more conventional narrative.
Under the Skin, unlike many films, is an almost purely cinematic experience: there is absolutely no hand-holding, telegraphing or easy answers to be found here. Indeed, I felt rather shell-shocked after the final credits rolled, since the entire film felt like some sort of barely remembered fever dream: it was like being rudely woken from an entrancing vision only to be unceremoniously dumped back into the real world. While other films may provoke the response “I wish it would never end,” Under the Skin practically demands it: the dreamlike aura and atmosphere is so addictive that re-entering reality feels like a severe comedown, regardless of one’s relative sobriety at the time. It’s no hyperbole to say that Under the Skin may have been the single biggest immersive experience I’ve had watching a film in recent memory.
Above all else, Glazer’s film is absolutely gorgeous, featuring some of the most stunning cinematography I’ve ever seen. Despite director of photography Daniel Landin’s relative lack of feature film experience (Under the Skin is only the fourth full-length film that he’s shot in a twenty-year career), I really don’t think anyone could have done a better job. From shots that explore darkness and shadow in impressive new ways to one astounding scene that looks to take place in a room-sized lightbox, virtually each and every shot in the film is a work of art. No lie: I’m more than happy to compare Under the Skin’s visuals to any other film out there, past or present, and I’m pretty confident that it would win each and every showdown. Under the Skin is just about the closest to a Kubrick film (in visual aesthetic) that I’ve ever seen, including any of Refn’s candy-colored daydreams.
Writer/director Glazer, whose short career (thus far) has only included three full-lengths and a slew of music videos, has such a firm grasp on the film that it becomes more than a little shocking to discover how much of it was, essentially, improvd. Apparently, Glazer would send Johannson out into the Scottish night and have her randomly “pick up” strangers: once the men took the bait, as it were, the production team would approach them with waivers, more specific direction, etc. In a way, this recalls the similar blurring of reality and fiction in the exceptional Toad Road, although Under the Skin is a much more dreamlike effort, all things considered. Even though none of the “victims” are really required to do much in the way of acting, it still strikes me as endlessly impressive that there was such an element of chance inherent to such a meticulously crafted piece of art: it’s akin to finding out that an amazing tattoo artist freehands everything, making the job as difficult as possible.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been the biggest Scarlett Johansson fan in the world. Truth be told, there have actually been very few films that I’ve really enjoyed her in, although I thought she was great in Don Jon (2013) and perfectly serviceable in Lost in Translation (2003). That being said, Johansson is absolutely pitch-perfect in Under the Skin, turning in a performance that is endlessly nuanced and as three-dimensional as a mysterious, unemotional, nearly mute character could possibly be. One of the most fascinating aspects of the movie is how completely unerotic and clinical the frequent nudity ends up being: despite her continued status as a modern “it girl,” Johansson manages to work wonders with her posture, stance and body language to craft a character that manages to seem almost utterly alien and strange. In the past, I’ve always had the dismayed sense that Johansson was a completely blank performer, no more capable of investing her characters with genuine life than she was with singing the songs of Tom Waits with any sense of passion. Here, Johansson’s inherent emptiness becomes but one facet of her unnamed character: she manages to off-set this blankness with some moments of genuine emotion. The scene where she has sex with one of the men she picks up is telling because it’s one of the few scenes where Johansson’s character displays any emotion aside from a sense of ennui: her panicky reaction works so well because it plays against everything that’s come before…watching the fine cracks spiderweb across the surface of Johansson’s frozen lake of a personality is one of the most sublime joys the film offers.
Truth be told, I still find myself a little off kilter after watching the film. While I genuinely enjoyed Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000), there’s just no way I could have foretold that Under the Skin would be on the horizon, even almost 15 years later. There’s a genuine sense of grandeur and space that fills the entire film, a feeling that befits a work of art that has its head as far into outer space as it has its feet firmly planted on terra firma. Even a few days later, I’m hard-pressed to explain exactly what it was I saw: I have my suspicions, of course, my theories and even my doubts. At the end of the day, however, I just don’t know…and that’s a mighty awesome, invigorating problem to have. In a day and age where too many films shoot for the lowest common denominator and filmmakers seem to constantly “dumb down” their productions for less discerning audiences (hell, the Weinstein’s cut Snowpiercer’s (2013) running time because they didn’t think Western audiences would be able to patiently sit through the film), Under the Skin is that rare beast that does neither. Rather, Glazer’s film demands that audiences meet it on its own terms or not at all: I can only imagine how unbelievably frustrating Under the Skin would be to a passive, disengaged viewer.
At the end of the day, Under the Skin is many things: a mood piece; an art film; a sci-fi film; a horror movie; a romance; an allegory…it’s all of these and none of them, at the same time. While I don’t really know much the film, specifically, I do know that it really hit me hard and continues to be something that worms around my cerebral cortex. While there may come a day when I understand the film more completely (I have a nagging suspicion that I’ve missed some of the more important symbolism), I really hope that the day doesn’t come when I cease to be impressed by it. The world needs more films like Under the Skin: gorgeous, atmosphere, dense and uncompromising, the film is a true work of art. It may be a little premature to include this film on my list of all-time favorite movies (I’ll need to live with it a little longer and see it many more times before that can happen) but it’s no hyperbole to say that the film absolutely blew me away. Give Glazer another nine years and, I daresay, he might just come up with something that will set the film-world on its ear: I have no idea how he’ll top Under the Skin but I’m sure as hell excited to see him try.