Thursday, April 24, 2014

Under the Skin

UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

UNDER THE SKIN begins with the gradual reveal of a developing eye and language. It is the birth of a sort for Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed character, an alien in human form. Although her motivation for coming to our planet isn’t clearly defined, her task is to lure men into the white van she drives around Glasgow and its surrounding areas. With her curves, mop of black hair, bright red lips, and welcoming personality she wears a pleasing form to males of the species. Such attributes make it easy to entice men into going for a ride to a dingy house where they follow her into full submersion and suspension in a pitch-like substance for storage until harvesting.

As Johansson observes and speaks with the natives, she becomes more sympathetic to them. Her developing emotional capacity opens the visitor to new experiences of this foreign world but also puts her in danger from the men on motorcycles, presumably fellow aliens, and the subjects she is studying.

Jonathan Glazer’s stunning film provides an experience akin to hearing and seeing for the first time. The sound design starts as though it is muffled to convey the sense of one’s ears adjusting to a new environment. Mica Levi’s abrasive and sinister score heightens the physical and psychological uneasiness of navigating the unfamiliar. Even the thick Scottish accents, which require some work for this American viewer to understand, work in service of culture shock’s disorientating effects

Remarkably Glazer grants the audience the opportunity to see humans like extraterrestrials might observe us. Like THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, UNDER THE SKIN functions as an anthropological study. A shot of a wailing child on the beach gives the sensation of watching an animal in a nature documentary. For that instant it’s as if the kid is something other than what we are. Johansson studies the people around her as though tracking the movements of ants and, at least for a time, treating their welfare with no more regard than most would give tiny insects.

UNDER THE SKIN advances visually and sonically from sensory bombardment in the city to a calmer state as Johansson progresses from disaffected onlooker to empathetic participant in human culture. The stark lighting and locations become more natural. The score becomes somewhat more melodic, and the sound design softens from the previous buzz and harshness. The suggestion of potential malevolence remains in what is seen and heard; it merely fades into the background more.

Glazer’s exacting, detached style is the most immediately dazzling aspect of UNDER THE SKIN, but it wouldn’t work as well as it does without Johansson’s spectacular performance. Her acting turns on subtle expressions that show how her character flips from hunter mode to a passive manner she deploys to seduce men. As much as UNDER THE SKIN is about observing humankind, it is also concerned with what it is like in society to be seen as a woman.

Grade: A

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