Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sexy Beast: UNDER THE SKIN

Movies so often tell us what we need to know about plot and character by literally telling us that it’s a shock to see a movie like Under the Skin, which verbalizes almost nothing, and certainly nothing of note. Instead, it speaks through the power of its images , vividly, coherently, and masterfully. Of course we know that the movies are a visual medium – they started silent, after all. But these days it’s rarely so fully a visual medium. With meticulous design and absorbing formal precision, director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer, adapting a novel by Michel Faber, has built an icy, austere science fiction film that operates on a level of art house horror. It methodically creates an overwhelming visual and auditory experience, as specific about literal detail as it is abstractions. It is a cold mood piece that descends like a shiver and strips away at its conceit until its mysteries lay bare and trembling on the screen with a quiet, insistent dread.

It starts with a woman. We don’t know who she is, but we see her in a vacant white space getting dressed in the clothes of a dead woman, an outfit she strips off the corpse piece by piece as we watch. There are lights softly glowing in the cloudy sky above as she begins her mysterious tasks. She moves confidently, purposefully, silkily seductive, using her beauty as a lure. She’s driving around Scotland in an anonymous white van, the kind that one feels instinctively is up to no good. She watches like a predator circling prey, looking for vulnerable men walking alone late at night, with no one expecting them, with nowhere in particular they need to be. She makes her move, leading them on until they are consumed by inky black nothingness, unconsummated desires driving them right into their deaths, or maybe worse.

The woman is played by Scarlett Johansson, using her obvious bombshell qualities to create a portrait of eerie otherworldly beauty. Deliberate in her movements, she nonetheless communicates a sense that she’s not quite used to operating in her skin. She’s blank. At times she squints, tilts her head, or stares intently, as if her every moment is a novelty, but also that she doesn’t want to allow that to become apparent. Her most confident moments come in the abstract nightmarish voids into which she entraps her prey, their bodies responding with hypnotic arousal, pointing forward into total darkness, swallowed up by a viscous floor. Elsewhere, most of the film takes place in something like the real world. But in its unrelentingly defamiliarized perspective our world is a place made alien. Its emphasis on the woman’s point of view makes clear that we’re seeing through her eyes. The first image of the film is a slow tracking shot that pulls back through darkness and light until it reveals shapes (a rod and a cone?) in slow movement until at last we’re staring at an extreme close up of her eyeball, a trembling membrane.

The woman moves among the human masses on the streets, or in a mall, or at a nightclub. She’s isolated, in the world, but not of it. Sounds of people congeal into a gargled mess, thick Scottish brogues making words difficult to parse en masse as the sound design of chattering groups makes dialogue often deliberately muddy, warbling with distortion. With a clinical eye, Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin create images pinned down with specificity so intense – mist on a river, fog on a field, wind in the trees, mud in a forest – that it too becomes abstraction, dehumanizing and quizzical in its concentration. In its destabilizing point of view, our world looking so familiar and yet so indescribably different, the film recalls Craig Raine’s 1979 poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” with its alienating descriptions of common objects, like a car called “a room with a lock inside – a key is turned to free the world.”

When the woman meets a man with severe facial deformities, showing a mix of curiosity and compassion as she leads him just as surely towards doom as any of her other victims, it’s clear mankind is a system of variations, vast in permutations, and similar in our base impulses. It's also a turning point for the woman. A key moment comes later, when she looks at herself in a mirror. She moves before it as if she has never paid close attention to the construction of the human body before, twisting muscles, feeling soft angles as curves become musculature become bone. To her, the sight is a novelty, a disguise, a revelation. The film has been so committed to reshaping our point of view that as she stands bare, studying her self-image, it’s at once an attractive and destabilizing view. What makes these shapes so alluring, so human? It all seems so arbitrary. As they say, it is what’s inside that counts. In the conclusion, her inner nature is at long last unveiled in a harrowing scene of allegoric force, violence and fear contrasted with the astonishing pictorial beauty of its presentation. Man can be rough, unsparing, and ugly. The victimizer becomes the victim. Our world is reflected back at us.

Glazer’s past films, Sexy Beast and Birth, are character studies about order threatening to become chaos through peculiar circumstances – a surprise deadly gangster guest and a possible reincarnation, respectively. In Under the Skin, chaos is making sense of the world around us – gender roles, environments, relationships – from a defiantly Other perspective. The film throbs with an accumulative power. Shots have vivid design, a kind of pop boldness Glazer shares with other directors – Fincher, Bay, Tarsem – who cut their teeth on music videos and commercials. But Glazer isn’t interested in finding stylized coolness or hollow “awesome” here. His images have more in common with 70’s sci-fi/horror of Roeg and Tarkovsky. Shots are chilling, held for beauty and horror alike, both crawling with the sublime. A husk of skin floats suspended in mid-air. An abandoned baby cries on a beach at dusk. A man on a motorcycle, introduced with a stream of neon lights zooming reflected in his helmet, follows the events, helping to clear the path for the woman’s tasks and clean up after her. Throughout, the score by Mica Levi is a low hum and buzz that can take on an entrancing quality, like the spectral choir of The Shining if it were channeling an extraterrestrial transmission.

Like a scene in which the woman takes a tentative, curious bite of chocolate cake then suddenly chokes it back up and out in confusion, the movie carefully invites audience interest, curiosity, and even sympathy at times, for its central character. Taking in sensory detail of this otherworldly woman’s perspective and actions, the film asks you to puzzle through her goals and desires in beautiful and horrifying tableaus. Then it’s all choked up, gone wrong, sent burning aloft into the end credits. It’s stunning to look at, but one bite into the substance and it’s a shock to the system, like all good disturbing cerebral horror should be. The film is a continually alluring form of unsettling that draws you in until you’re over your head, then turned loose with your thoughts scrambled.

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