24 March, 2014

Review: Under the Skin -- Green Men are From Mars, Redheads are From Venus

When did Scarlett Johansson become so sexy?  Her voice is enough to make Joaquin Phoenix fall in love with an operating system in Her.  She is the cat suited kick ass assassin Black Widow in Marvel's Avengers franchise.  In Under the Skin she crawls the streets of Glasgow seducing young men whom she literally drives to abstraction.

I'll tell you when.  It was in Match Point.  Yes, the dreadful crime without punishment thriller in which Woody Allen totally misreads the British class system as a stand in for his usually privileged New Yorkers (jarring example: they faun over a tennis player because he's read Dostoyevsky -- the exact opposite of the practically cliché pre-Thatcher product of great British education proudly well read working class Trotskyite).  Jonathan Rhys Meyers believably puts his social climbing at risk for a tortured affair with Scarlett who, for the first time for me, was fully glamorous.  Up 'til then she'd been cute, kinda pretty, kinda gawky, usually deadpan funny.  Match Point shifted her gears up to full va va va voom.  This discovery was the one intriguing element to that film.  Unfortunately, my new found appreciation of Scarlett's charms was shared by a grubby old man a few rows in front of me, who grunted lustfully every time the camera cut to her (on each and every cut, like a perverted Thelma Schoonmaker).

Under the Skin is.... hold on... I'd like to say having seen the film, I'd been told things about it I wish I hadn't... things the film itself resolutely never explains.  So... dear reader... if you fancy a film that mixes themes of death, sex and alienation, lightly plotted, opaque, but filled with a series of arresting images, and with ostensible smatterings of weird/horror/science fiction genres... or, if you just need an opportunity to grunt at Scarlett looking tantalizing in a faux rabbit fur coat and tight jeans... then read no further and go see it with my recommendation but for the caveat that it is Arty with a capital A.  You have been warned.


The Things which didn't spoil, but I'd have soon not known going in:  Under the Skin is based on the Michel Faber novel in which an alien, in a Scarlett Johansson skinsuit prowls in a van using her wily femininity to lure young men back to a stylized demise featuring nudity and black goo.   Also, some scenes were filmed with "non-actors" by hidden cameras (I didn't waste time trying to spot which ones, and difference in the end is purely academic).

The film begins with a Kubrickian sequence of lights and shapes, the 2001 monolith/stargate/light tunnel given a utilitarian re-design by Steve Jobs (and indeed it is shortly followed by a transformation sequence so filled with white light and silhouettes I thought we were briefly in an early Ipod ad). This wink to the audience (complete with the full 2001 eye close-up) is the only indication of interstellar travel.  Mica Levi's nervy box of violins being rattled soundtrack stands in superbly for Ligetti (at time of publication this link will let you stream it http://pitchfork.com/advance/384-under-the-skin/).

The fate or purpose of her victims is never revealed, although some appear to be "harvested" by the sexual encounter.  So, more Liquid Sky meets Eyes Wide Shut than The Man Who Fell to Earth meets Species.  Although, to be perfectly fair, it is thoroughly infused with that sense of "other" that liberally peppers the works of Nic Roeg.  Scarlett for her part puts this across as beautifully as Bowie did, her detachment complete as expression falls from her face each time she stops interacting with humans.

The otherness is intentionally exacerbated by the thick Gorbals accent of most of her men (amongst other Glaswegian Scots thoroughly English obscuring accents available).  She doesn't try to blend in, and sports an accent between "posh-bird" and BBC Received Pronunciation.  Apart from one conversation, hinting at a difficult to process sympathy, the sparse dialogue may as well be in an alien language.  This is a film about images and sensations, not a pithy script.  It's edifying if you let it wash over you without looking for much in the way of engagement or story.

Regardless of what you may think of director Jonathan Glazer's previous output, Sexy Beast (what's not to love? Gandhi made terrifying gangster!) and Birth (boring, preposterous, ponderous, some points for atmosphere), he does have strong visions and for better or worse carries them to fruition.  This is better.

Under the Skin may leave you perplexed, intrigued, unsatisfied, suspended in black goo, or some combination of the above, but at the very least, it will leave you wanting more Scarlett Johansson, and more Jonathan Glazer.  That's not so bad, is it?

Sidebar:  In my particular screening a woman sitting two rows behind me, perhaps believing herself to be an alien, or a spiritual cousin to the dirty old man of Match Point, made inappropriate noises throughout.  Giggles and gasps, but most strikingly, a cry of pain at the moment when a fork penetrated a slice of cake.

EXTRA CREDIT [look back at this next sentence AFTER seeing the film] : Is the hilarity of the "she doesn't always walk on water" and "so that's what that hole is for" moments intentional?