Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Staring Life in the Face

The aptly named Under the Skin certainly does just that, wriggling its way inside you and staying deeply entrenched within your thoughts and feelings. From the first shots of engulfing darkness giving way to a beckoning light (foreshadowing another dark room lead by seduction and introducing a common theme of dark and light), an unnerving mood has already penetrated our psyche. Minutes later, as a close-up image of a pupil, accompanied by a surrealist soundscape of strings, synths, and an undetermined language with a female voice, fill the screen - a dreamlike merging of image and audio - we know the accompanying film will be unlike anything we've encountered.

The third film from director Jonathan Glazer (after a Malick-like 10 year hiatus) has been favorably compared to another visionary director, Stanley Kubrick. And like Malick and Kubrick before him, Glazer seems to be carving out his own distinct brand of filmmaking, at once unique, exciting, and entirely original. After having seen the film in theaters back in April (and unable to quite shake it), it seems to beg for multiple viewings, so I was eager to revisit it for this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

After bringing us a volatile Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, an icy, reflective Nicole Kidman (in one of her best performances) in Birth, director Jonathan Glazer gives us another star, this time Scarlett Johansson, and like those celebrated actors' turns in his previous films, makes us forget what we think we know about her, exposing unexplored depths and unexpected surprises until the Scarlett we see on screen is not the one we've seen before. She plays an alien creature that has come to our planet to harvest male souls (for what, we're never made aware, but plot is secondary to mood and atmosphere which the film builds on until we become as unwittingly seduced as one of the creature's conquests).

As the film progresses, we witness her evolution. Coolly calculating as she sizes up the men of Glasgow (who with their indiscernible accents seem almost as otherworldly), she unfeelingly has no sympathy for humanity. She is doing a job, luring them to unsuspecting doom. Without remorse, she even later ignores the panicked cries of a frightened toddler as she goes about her business, bringing home a unconscious swimmer to join the other men in the blackened goo.

But the longer she stays among these people, the more she finds. No longer an apathetic outsider, she soon turns her gaze on the female species. She has never really noticed the other gender before as men are her goal, but she observes while realizing that she is apart of them. After an encounter with a man unlike the others, she finds that perhaps there is more to earthlings then just bodies of flesh. She lets him go and begins to explore what it means to be a woman on earth. She tries chocolate cake (she doesn't like it! But she's forming opinions on things she'd never thought of before). She explores her body, finding the anatomy astonishing and confusing as she comes into the development of her womanhood.

Which brings me to my choice for Best Shot (WARNING THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD). After a consensual sexual encounter with a man that takes her in, she experiences an awaking. Not entirely sure what has happened she wanders the woods to collect her thoughts. She is no longer the predator she once was, but as lost and helpless as any young girl trying to find her place in the world. She has become unguarded and suffers violence at the hands of men as an attempted rape literally tears her apart. She is violated and the sensation has left her physically crawling out of her skin. But as she peels away her human disguise, she briefly looks back at the blinking face at the woman she had become. In her hands lies what remain of her humanity. However briefly, there was a soul behind those eyes and under that skin.

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