Tuesday, May 13, 2014

When was the last time you touched someone?

Under the Skin begins with the image of a pinpoint of light surrounded by darkness; we watch for what feels like several minutes as the speck expands into a shape, then begins to take form, accompanied by what sounds like a woman learning how to speak. As the shape changes and, eventually resolves into a recognizable form, we aren't sure whether what we've just seen; even after watching the rest of the film, whether these images represent interstellar travel or the main character assuming her human form - the title of composer Mica Levi's track that accompanies the scene, "Creation," strongly implies the latter, but what she was before, if she was before, and where she came from remain a mystery. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien opened similarly, with almost abstract scenes showing the emergence, from darkness, of forms that are at first alien but are ultimately familiar; as with those films and their directors, Jonathan Glazer attempts nothing less than imagining what a truly otherworldly form of life might be like. It's alternately frightening and strangely but deeply moving; it's a cliche to say a film shows us what it means to be human, but this is a movie about the Other that works as well as it does because it understands, with disturbing clarity, who we are.

The first half of the movie follows our unnamed protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) as she prowls around Glasgow and rural Scotland in a van, seducing men and taking them back to her place, where they're imprisoned in an abyss-like expanse of darkness for reasons we never learn (Michael Faber's book apparently explains the character's mission in more detail, but Glazer chooses to keep it a mystery). These early interactions were filmed with hidden cameras, as Johansson approached non-actors on the street; when a particular guy seemed right for the movie, the crew would explain it to him and invite him to participate in the stranger material. Not only has Glazer found an interesting use for GoPro cameras, he also found a perfect mirror of the film in its own production; it's fascinating to watch her conquest's tentative enthusiasm in those scenes, and fascinating to watch Johansson, who is brilliant throughout the film, shift between flirtiness and a chilling indifference as she tracks her unobserved prey. She's perfect for this role, and her status as a sex symbol adds another layer of meaning to the film, as we're watching a target of our collective objectification forcing male audience members into a very unsettling form of empathy. When I mentioned how much I loved the movie on Facebook, a friend commented that "naked ScarJo can't hurt," and I had to gently let him know that, if that's why he wanted to see the film, it was likely to really mess him up.

At the screening I attended, an older couple walked out about twenty minutes in, after the first instance of male frontal nudity, although I think this was just the last straw for them. Honestly, as much as I loved the movie, I can't blame them - this is a movie that wants to disturb us, and I think it has the ability to shake even the most jaded cinephile. With little explicit violence and no gore, Under the Skin is more frightening than any horror movie I've seen in years. There was actually a point where I wondered if I was going to turn on the movie, a scene where the protagonist meets a family on a beach (trust me, you'll know it when you see it). While I admired the film up until that point, I worried that the film would ultimately only be a well-crafted provocation, While I understood that what the main character does (and neglects to do) in that situation stemmed from a lack of understanding of human values, as I happen to be a human, I was repulsed by her and couldn't imagine caring about her for the rest of the film.

Then, shortly after, the character encounters a man with a severely deformed face (Adam Pearson). As she has no preconceptions about what a man should look like, she flirts with him as easily as she would anyone else; the man, understandably, is at first defensive, then moved to tears by what he takes as kindness. It's not really, of course - as with the other men, she's just doing her job. But the sequence builds to an astonishing moment where the alien feels - empathy? Sympathy? Affection? We don't know, but it's fascinating to watch the feeling, and the decision she makes, unfold on Johansson's face; between this and a similar scene in Birth, Glazer has a gift for showing a character's entire world change in a wordless close-up. It's here that Under the Skin reveals an unexpected spiritual dimension, not in a theistic sense but in the suggestion that compassion, genuine concern for others and even love are not necessarily the result of socialization, that these things truly can grow from within. And then, after reminding us how we all have this capacity for goodness, there's an incident of human cruelty that stings so much more when one considers how the movie arrived there. This movie wrecked me, is what I'm saying.

Glazer has been called cold and detached, but, while his visual sensibility is very precise and meticulous, he's perceptive about the human condition at its best and most horrible in a way that only an artist with a huge heart could be. Glazer favors big, archetypal images - bodies suspended in darkness, a stream of red liquid transported across space, the absolutely beautiful shot of Johansson asleep in a forest - and cinematographer Daniel Landlin and the effects artists achieve these effects brilliantly, blurring the line between the realistic and otherworldly scenes (if only CGI was more frequently used in such a beautifully impressionistic way). Under the Skin feels out of time, in a way - while movies this formally daring have always been rare, I suspect it would have done well at midnight screenings for stoned audiences in the '70s, alternating nights with Eraserhead and El Topo. While one can find Kubrick and other influences in the movie's DNA, it's ultimately the kind of movie that - again, a cliche here, but actually true - isn't like anything you've ever seen before. Based on Birth and on the advance raves for Under the Skin, I had high hopes for the film, and it easily surpassed them. If I see a better movie this year, than we're in for a hell of a year.