Sunday, 23 March 2014

Film: Under The Skin (Dir, Jonathan Glazer)

I haven't been to see this yet but Simon Elmer has and here is his review.

I saw this last night. There are a lot of crappy reviews of it, or plain stupid reviews, so I thought I’d write my own, cause you should see this. Or rather, if you like films in which nothing happens you should see this. It’s the best new film I’ve seen in a very long time. And it’s proper cinema, not theatre filmed. The script can’t be more than a few pages long. What plot there is, as in most great cinema, is just a hook on which to hang the images. Sculpting in time, Tarkovsky called it.

The film is about aliens, or perhaps a better way to describe it is to say one of its two main metaphors is of what an alien is. There’s the alien from outer space, there’s the alien citizen, there’s our alienation from our fellow human beings, and there’s our own alienation from ourselves. The way it explores these various forms of being alien is through the other main metaphor, which is that of skin. There’s nothing new here: skin is what we live within, more or less comfortably; skin is what beauty is as deep as; skin is what we’re meant to look beyond; skin is what we lust after; skin is what we’re imprisoned in; skin is what we're all the same beneath; etc.

The way the director approaches this is by casting some of the most recognisable, most beautiful, most lusted-after skin on the planet – that wrapped around the form of Scarlett Johansson – and putting her on the streets of Glasgow. I love it when directors come up with new ways to make films, and this one has made a film with one actress, who interacts with non-actors. This gives the film a convincing - and therefore slightly alienating - authenticity. And since she isn’t acting but engaging with the public, Johansson herself comes across as herself. There are at least three films going on here – a sci-fi story, an existential meditation on what it is to be human, and a documentary about the streets of Glasgow. From what I can tell they secretly filmed these encounters, and if the member of the public responded, the consequences of that encounter were then filmed with their knowledge and collaboration.

Of course, the question is, how do you put one of the most famous faces in the world on the streets of Glasgow without her being recognised at every turn? And the answer is, of course, that on the streets of Glasgow Scarlett Johansson is just another girl. Pretty, certainly, but that’s it. Half the guys she tries to pick up walk on. But the film is very reflexive about her status. It never pretends that we don’t know who she is, and this film couldn’t have been made with a lesser known actor. In the context of her fame, Scarlett Johansson on the streets of Glasgow is an alien. What the film does, though, is use our fascination with her and reverse it. Throughout the film it is she who does the looking, she who prowls the streets of Glasgow at night, preying on men, she who walks anonymous though the high streets and shops. What this does is give us a view point from which the most mundane scenes of our everyday reality are made alien, every face made as fascinating and compelling to our gaze as that of a beautiful Hollywood starlet.

At the centre of the film, and the turning point in its plot, is a scene that scared me with its intensity and beauty. She picks up a guy with Neurofibromatosis, a condition that has massively deformed his head and face. This could have been done wrong in so many ways, all of them exploitative or insulting or voyeuristic or plain clumsy, and the film would have died right there. Instead, it’s a scene of enormous integrity and beauty. Like everyone else, this isn’t a guy in makeup but someone afflicted by this terrible disfigurement, and his courage in appearing in this role is extraordinary.

A few other points. Glasgow and Glaswegians, especially the blokes, come off very well here. This is a real love poem to the place, from the brassy broads to the kindness of strangers, without shying away from the alienation of a Motherwell council estate in the rain.

Second, every great film needs a great cinematographer, and this one’s got an artist. The early part of the film is shot in extremely dark tones, regularly playing on the edge of abstraction. The latter part, by contrast, moves into a bleached-out white, culminating in the final image of smoke rising into falling snow. That's a very Tarkovsky-like meeting of opposites. But in both cases, dark and light, the images are always open to interpretation, never clear or didactic. They never serve the plot, always the other way around. And their power, horror, darkness and beauty have enormous powers of suggestion. The baby on the beach was the stuff of nightmares, her face in the fog that of dreams.

Lastly, Johansson is extraordinary in this. She carries the whole film’s narrative without giving anything away. It’s a measure of the stupidity of our critics and film distributors that half the press about this film is about her getting naked on screen. She does, but it’s to show that, while she’d make a nice roll in the hay, there’s nothing exceptional about her figure, or about that amazing bust you can’t click on Google images without seeing splayed across a hundred salivating photos. She’s just like you and me. Except for that mouth, of course, which we repeatedly see her covering with lipstick, that second painted skin. There’s a beautifully judged scene where she stands in front of a mirror and looks at herself for the first time, not as a sex-symbol, object of lust, or any of those other terms we use to keep the terrifying reality of flesh at bay, but as an example of the pure weirdness of our bodies. I mean what, exactly, is a knee? What are these things through which we view the world? What stripping her naked does, I think – as I think nakedness always does when you reach out and touch it – is try to make us feel as amazed at our own corporeality as we are at her beauty, to feel at once alienated in this strange stuff we walk around in and as at home in it as she, by the end of the film, so desperately wants to be.

I guess like all films worth their celluloid this one is about re-enchanting a world that has become dull to eyes that have forgotten how to look. But sometimes it takes someone from another planet to do that.

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