Thursday, February 5, 2015

Women Are From Venus

Warning: This review contains moderate visual spoilers for Under the Skin. Because the film operates on a plane almost entirely separate from what we mortals would consider a "narrative," these are actually more relevant than actual plot spoilers. Keep that in mind and carry on if you dare.

Year: 2014
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Kevin McAlinden
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Hello everybody, and welcome back to Women in Horror Month! As I mentioned in my catch-up post, one of the most influential horror(ish) films of the past year was Under the Skin, which I have finally had the modest pleasure of receiving into my eyeballs. Starring Scarlett Johansson, this experimental sci-fi/horror picture is playing a game where the rules are made up and the points don't matter, but it's more than a little stirring.

And not in the way you're probably expecting.

Under the Skin is about many things, most of them as intangible and ephemeral as a midsummer night's dream. Or one of Lady Gaga's bras. But the one thing it can confidently assert to be about is the Female (Scarlett Johansson), a woman who is pretty clearly an alien although this film's definition of the word "clear" is in a completely different spectrum of reality than the one we live in. On the scale of clarity, it's long gone from "it's outright stated in the film," past "it's implied in the film," and somewhere in the vicinity of "the IMDb page says it's sci-fi so I guess something must be going on."

Anyway, the Female drives around Middle of Nowhere, Scotland in an unmarked van, chatting up random dudes and observing the rest with a keen eye. The ones that she successfully picks up she takes to her home, an inky black void that swallows them up. Presumably this is how she eats, or powers her ship, or... gets off? Honestly, I don't know. This film views specificity as a sort of mangy dog that should be kept in the backyard when company is around.

Just like men, Amirite?

As she examines the human race inside and out, she slowly begins to form a sense of her own identity. Her exploration of what exactly that means forms the extended third act, which is where the film drops its experimental, inscrutable nature in favor of a perplexingly dull slog through the woods in the extended third act.

All said, Under the Skin is a very unique little duckling. Focusing on tiny human events and interactions that form a tableaux of life, love, and violence to underscore the Female's journey, it's like the Boyhood of experimental horror. It doesn't cohere quite as well as Linklater's film, but director Jonathan Glazer has had considerably less experience in the realm of the perfectly meandering narrative.

As the film cycles through its metronomically unstructured beats, it slowly loses grip on its already admirably slippery premise. There's more than enough pulsing beneath the surface to lead to many different interpretations of the central theme, and that's great. Experimentation is encouraged in cinema, but there's ambiguity and then there's opacity.

Despite its teeming thematic possibilities, Under the Skin frequently slips into an arcane fog of ostentation. Of all the potential readings of the film (the formation of identity, the performative aspect of gender, the arbitrary nature of death and health and human action), most of them wither and die in the corner during more than one visually stunning occasion where the film firmly plants itself up its own ass.

And the rhythm goes splat.

Now, a film doesn't have to come right out and declare its intentions. If that were true, cinema as an art form would be duller than a vacation to... well, Scotland. So let me just say that a film this arcane in which nothing in particular happens and even the most simple of ideas is hidden behind an obscuring curtain of avant-garde is not necessarily my cup of tea. Moving on.

By far the most invaluable element of Under the Skin is its aesthetic. The costume design is simplistic but evocative of the shoddy, worn aesthetic of the world. The sound design is chilling, juxtaposing long periods of silence with unsettling muffled, garbled noise and a bone-chillingly shrill string score. And the expertly chosen locations help keep the film feeling isolated and alien. Let's face it, Scottish accents might as well be a different language unbeknownst to us regular humans. 

But above and beyond all that, there's the fact that the experimental art pieces that lay scattered about the film are, in actuality, truly superb bits of visual phenomena. Creating colorless voids of pure white and inky black and countermanding them with bold, bright hues, under the skin creates a stark, brutal colorscape that provides an effortlessly disturbing atmosphere. You're never quite sure what's happening, but it's damn beautiful. Also the gore-type effects are rare but stunningly executed. I shall say no more in this regard.

I mean, look. This wig is a work of art.

Oh, also this film shows an erect penis. All of its ample nudity is stalwartly non-erotic, so there's no need to get one's knickers in a bunch, but I always like to point out films that break through our archaic censorship system with some male nudity. Equality!

All in all, Under the Skin is only worth it for the pretty pictures. So if that's what you love, dive right on in. It has enough pristine special effects to make up for its paucity of plot, but for those looking for a more traditional good time, please feel free to move right along.

TL;DR: Under the Skin is an inscrutable experimental film, but it supplies some truly brutal and unforgettable horror images.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 970

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, since I have my compliment hat on, I'll remark that I did enjoy Orry's design work. I'd like to see what he does next.

    Good write up, B. I'm glad you got more out of it than I could. Ah, I'm also looking forward to your Into the Woods review... I missed it, but may be seeing it this weekend.