Saturday, April 5, 2014

Under the Skin

To appreciate or even find Jonathan Glazer's latest film satisfying, you need Negative Capability in spades (although certainly not to the degree you needed it for Shane Carruth's Upstream Color). You have to be able to tolerate and suspend not knowing. Forget the reviews you've read that state that Scarlett Johansson is the Woman Who Fell to Earth (in this case, Glasgow), an alien who takes on the body of a sexy woman and lures men in order to feed her planet. Whatever critics wrote that were victims of a bad press kit or were extrapolating.  Glazer makes none of this clear in his film apparently loosely based on the novel by William Faber and adapted by Walter Campbell and Glazer.  (And in comparison, Nic Roeg's 1976 Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth seems like a mainstream movie.)

Spoilers ahead!  It does seem clear that Johansson's character (they don't have names in this film) comes from another planet, and that she has a male accomplice who rides around on a motorcycle and assists her or fixes her mishaps.  And she does indeed lure strange men into her various lairs around town, leading them into a kind of La Brea tar pit/primordial ooze where they become--well, transformed is perhaps the only accurate word, to steal from Anthony Lane in The New Yorker.  Why she's luring them remains a mystery.  She doesn't appear to feed on them (she doesn't seem to need food or drink and in fact spits up a bite of cake she tries), and if the men are sustenance for her planet, then this doesn't seem a particularly efficient way of harvesting food.  Unless there are a bunch of other aliens in other countries doing the same, of which there's no evidence.

Clearly these details aren't what interests Glazer (right), known for the films Sexy Beast, Birth, and music videos for Radiohead and Massive Attack.  That lies more in the alien's journey towards tasting what it's like to be human, towards empathy.  At the outset of the film, she watches without emotion as a couple drowns in the freezing ocean trying to save their dog, and she simply walks past their despairing abandoned baby on the beach.  After luring and killing (?) several men, one night Johansson picks up someone who looks like the Elephant Man, which seems not to faze her.  She learns that he's never had sex, nor has never even touched a woman.  She ultimately allows him to escape, but motorcycle man later disposes of the poor wretch.

In the aforementioned cake scene, Johansson's alien tries a piece of chocolate cake in a family restaurant, but fairly chokes on it and spits it out.  She wanders and is taken under wing by a kind man who is attracted to her.  He offers her tea and sympathy.  Later, his sympathy heats up and they have sex, or attempt to, but something's wrong.  As he thrusts at her, either he can't get in because she doesn't have a vagina or she's bone dry; again, it's not clear.  Johansson abruptly stops him and sits up on the side of the bed to examine her vaginal area with a light, mystified.  We remain as mystified as she.  It's a humorous moment in a film that does occasionally tend to become tedious (well, I did see it tired on a Friday night).

The movie is stunning in many ways.  It's got a compelling opening--with the spot of light that becomes an iris and the van Johansson drives wending its way down mountain roads in starkly beautiful photography (by Daniel Landin).  The unsettling score by Mica Levy (individual songs can be found on YouTube) and wall-to-wall sound design are wonderfully atmospheric.  The Scottish accents--occasionally indecipherable--add to the alien quality of the film.

Its documentary style comes from the fact that Johansson actually drove around Glasgow picking up men by asking for directions.  The front of the van was equipped with micro cameras, and Glazer and a small crew were in the back of the van, followed by another van with more crew members, some equipped to jump out and get releases signed by the pick-ups.

The style of the film could perhaps best be described as a mashup of film, documentary, and music video techniques.  It's audacious, that's for sure.

As Johansson's character becomes more vulnerable and "human," she the predator becomes a victim.  That's the beauty and the irony/tragedy that seem to capture Glazer's imagination.  She becomes a terminal case, like the men she picks up.

I can't say that I loved this film, but I can tell you that I want to see it again. It does get under one's skin.  Here's the trailer:

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