Under The Skin (Glazer, 2014) – Two Viewings

Under the Skin 1

I saw Under the Skin back in September (2013) at TIFF. I wrote a capsule review for Next Projection that night, and felt that I had given too little time to digest such a complicated work. For months after, my mind returned to the imagery and atmosphere of the film, which lingered long after the screening. I recently viewed the film a second time, and had a better experience. Here, I will post both my original review and my current one.

TIFF 2013
TIFF 13 Review:

Though Scarlett Johannson proves to be both an indelible seductress and actress, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, a sexy and provocative based on a book film about a sexually naïve alien who lures men into a void—what she does we never really know—is a rather shallow Sci-Fi thriller in that there is little framing and even less exposition to justify the obvious narrative. Had the film simply been shot as a non-narrative artistic experiment, one could not vilify the lack of clarity in the story; however, since the film clearly does have a story—just read the book to know more—Glazer’s choice to obfuscate many highly relevant plot points comes off as a desperate yearning for artistic ambiguity rather than the realization of it.

That said, while the film’s minimalist mise-en-scene is oddly complemented by maximalist editing points, the sincere mood of the film and its pulsating soundtrack—exuding the rhythmic nature of the heartbeat—is highly captivating, making Under The Skin an appreciable instance of pure cinema. The white or black backdrop on highly accentuated figures and slow movement produces an inherently psychosexual experience. Boosting this experience is Scarlett Johannson’s innocently sexual deadpan. Putting the viewer into a trance, Laura (Scarlett Johannson) acts without intention, as if doing what she does is a requisite of her being rather than a choice. Both a denial and affirmation of sexual sensation, the impetus of Under The Skin’s motivations is absconded, while mechanical camera and figure movements and a striking formal design allure the viewer into a void—a nothingness which is likewise presented by the plot.

72/100 ~ GOOD. While the film’s minimalist mise-en-scene is oddly complemented by maximalist editing points, the sincere mood of the film and its pulsating soundtrack—exuding the rhythmic nature of the heartbeat—is highly captivating, making Under The Skin an appreciable instance of pure cinema.

Under the Skin 2

Current Review:

“Pure Cinema”. I stated this once before, but that was within a (TIFF 13) review, at which time I believed that the film’s narrative tendencies didn’t quite justify the formal means by which they were rendered. The withholding of vital information in a film that seems to have a straightforward premise seemed pretentious to me. From my last review: “Glazer’s choice to obfuscate many highly relevant plot points comes off as a desperate yearning for artistic ambiguity rather than the realization of it.”

This viewing I kept myself from trying to interpret the film; instead I let the images and sounds wash over me, and I found the film’s withholding to be rather exceptional. It is only through this withholding that we can come to relate in any way with the alien’s predicament. As I noted in my previous review: her actions are a compulsion which even she does not completely understand. This resonates closely with a passage written by Timothy Leary in High Preist: “He is the victim of some greater power, his consciousness has been captured, perhaps by intelligences from another planet. He is not a free agent. He knows what he’s doing but he has no control over it. His turning us on is not an act of love and glorification but some sort of compulsion. He has to do it. He wants us to share the immobilization of His cosmic loneliness”. This was written about a dear friend and fellow tripper of his, but one might see how it relates to Scarlett Johannson’s alien. She is naive, lost, and in crisis; whatever is being withheld from us is at once being withheld from her.

When we enter the film, Alien Scarlett has only just begun her ordeal, meaning that she has just donned her skin. We do not know where this skin comes from, since she takes only the clothes from her first victim. One wonders about the biker; thinking about his role in the film is part of what may make the film seem rather opaque, but his identity is relatively more superfluous than the actions with which we are presented.

If Scarlett Alien has just donned the skin, then she is acting on behaviours she has learnt but for which she has yet to experience consequences, i.e. the pleasures (or displeasures) of.  It is her flesh which humanizes and later dehumanizes her. The more physical contact she actually experiences, the more she begins to realize what the flesh is capable rendering. In her first encounters, she doesn’t really make physical contact, besides dancing with one guy. In the pivotal scene when she’s in the car with the disfigured man, she not only makes contact but she experiences a connection, via the flesh, with another human being, who’s identity is also found beneath the surface. She asks him when the last time he touched a woman, but the audience might ask when the last time, or first time, she touched a man. Quite clearly she is knowledgeable about human pleasures and follies, but she has not herself experienced them.

As she begins to discover herself, she begins to identify with her skin/her flesh. What is supposedly superficial becomes an integral part of who she is and who she becomes, both because of the sensations she may experience as well as the social interaction she may experience due to her human appearance. In the ‘sex’ scene, she is seen trying to let go of what she “knows” while attempting to realize the sensual pleasures of human contact. It’s overwhelming for her, especially since sex involves inter-muscular contact. Where does her vagina lead to anyways? It goes under the skin, nonetheless.

When the rapist rips her skin off, one senses that she feels a great loss of herself, despite the fact that the skin was never part of her to begin with. Since she has come to identify with this body, she recognizes what is lost without it. No matter what’s under the skin, the skin itself—whether considerably shallow or even phony—is a major part of a person’s self-identification.

I had a much better experience this time around. Some of the imagery is truly sublime. That said, I was not as personally affected by the film’s sparseness or atmosphere as I would have liked or expected. I’m not entirely sure what is holding me back, but it is preventing me from considering this a masterpiece, which it could very rightly be. Perhaps it’s due to a perceived lack of consistency—certain parts of the film worked better for me than others—or perhaps I find Glazer’s technique a little amateurish as of yet. Regardless, Under The Skin is certainly an excellent film which I look forward to revisiting.

86/100 ~ Excellent.

4 Stars

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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