Saturday, 5 July 2014

Under the Skin and Over the Soul

How Jonathan Glazer's Profoundly Unnerving New Film Invades the Mind and Heart 

by J. Albert Barr

*Spoiler Alert

British film-director Jonathan Glazer has made an extraordinary, new science-fiction film called Under the Skin. It is just his third film after 2001's raucous Sexy Beast, and 2004's controversial Birth. The latest film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress sent from outer space to collect the bodily contents - literally leaving just the skins - of the unsuspecting male victims she enticingly picks up while driving around Scotland in a van casually searching for them through the city streets, although she passes on those who are expected by someone else; she tries to stick to victims who are seeming loners. Something goes wrong later on, however, that provokes the seductress to abort her mission. That, in a proverbial nutshell, is basically "the plot" of the film.

Based on the 2000 novel by Michel Faber, Glazer chose to loosely adapt the novel by focusing primarily on the female alien, where as in the novel the narrative involves both a male and female alien coupling. However, in the film there is a male alien counterpart to Scarlett Johannsen's character, but he acts more as a fringe character than a main one. He basically drives around Scotland on a motorcycle, initially delivering a female corpse to the back of the van where Scarlett's character then disrobes and uses the victim's clothes to dress herself (during the scene, which features a completely white, non-geometric, interior of the van, the female alien picks up an ant from the dead body and observes it between her fingers). Afterwards, the male alien acts as a "clean-up guy" for any contingency situations. He also later does an apparent "inspection" on his alien partner, perhaps suspecting that she has been altered somehow by Earth's social atmosphere and environment, and thus is jeopardizing the protocol of their mission on Earth.

The film gives very scant information/exposition, and open narrative/dialogue, for the viewer to follow and comprehend. A second viewing enabled me to take in a lot more than my first viewing (though I was still mesmerized by the first viewing, to be sure), so I could focus on the underlying meanings and social commentary that is most definitely suffusing through this remarkable film. It relies more on feel and atmosphere and subtlety, than straight forward, easily accessible narrative and plot. This directorial approach, I feel, was executed perfectly. The point was to deliberately disconcert and unnerve the audience. Mica Levi's chillingly piercing and haunting soundtrack only increases the tension, particularly when the female alien lures the unwitting male victims into the house where the "meat harvesting" takes place. These scenes, and Mica Levi's unforgettable music, truly get "under your skin" and are quite frightening, despite the seductive stripping of one garment of clothing after another from the beautiful Scarlett Johannsen (who gives a note-perfect, sultry, offbeat performance of reserved intensity), as the male victim does the same in turn, while following her deeper into the "trap room", which, like the van, but this time completely in black, has no apparent, discernible geometry - it's all black space. The victim then, with seeming imperceptibility, sinks into the floor, and into a dark liquid, which gradually loosens the skin and literally pops the body's contents from the now eviscerated victim, where it then runs through a conduit and into a receptacle chamber.

Under the Skin is ostensibly a "science-fiction film", but it's also a surrealist, arty, independent film which came out earlier this year as a limited release seen only in select theaters. Understandably, given its obvious lack of immediate commercial appeal, it has proven to be a kind of polarizing film, certainly among those who have paid to see it. Film critics, however, have been near unanimous in their collective praise for Under the Skin. At present, it has made just over 3 million dollars, domestically. Those are indeed art-house type numbers, good numbers, in fact, for this kind of film.

One of the film's more discernible influences is the work, style and tone of Stanley Kubrick. Under the Skin's very first shot instantly recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its strange otherworldly image of what gradually becomes the formation of an eye. At first peek it reminds one of the Discovery One spaceship from Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece. The weird sounds being made during this opening scene of Glazer's new opus, as the female alien's human eye is being constructed, are broken vocal utterances emitting from, or being programmed for, her to test and perfect. I was also reminded of 2001's initial monolith scene around the end of "The Dawn of Man" sequence where we can hear an increasingly loud, high-pitched buzz or signal emanating from the monolith that frightens the early hominids, and apparently plants an idea, or new consciousness, into the man-ape referred to as "Moonwatcher" when he realizes the weapon-potential of a dead animal bone. The overall sound and sound-editing in Under the Skin is both crisp and sharp, as well as affecting in a slightly disorienting way; one of the many impressive technical aspects featured throughout, in fact.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the film, and one that emphasizes the alien's initial indifference to the Earth's inhabitants, happens at a beach on a windy and overcast day. The female alien meets a young Czech man who has been swimming in the sea. The two of them converse a little before they both suddenly observe a woman, fully dressed, jump into the water to save her dog who has been caught by the sea's waves and is being pulled further out into the water. The woman is then followed by her husband when he sees that she, herself, is now in danger of drowning. Unfortunately, both the woman and dog are lost as the sea drags them down into its depths. The young Czech runs to save the husband. He actually succeeds by pulling the husband out of the water, but the husband then jumps right back into the water, in another futile attempt to save his wife, only to finally drown himself (this is confirmed later when the female alien hears of the couple missing during a news report on the radio while sitting in her van). The Czech, exhausted by the attempted rescue, lays, face-down, on the beach, physically spent. The female alien then casually walks over to him, looks on the ground for a good rock and then likely kills him with a blow to his head. She then starts dragging him off.

While this is happening we, the viewers, are shown a helpless toddler sitting a little further up the beach wailing away, not fully realizing that he has just lost both of his parents for good. Later that night, the male alien partner goes to the scene of the tragedy/killing and removes any signs that his partner had been there and then leaves. As he leaves we, once again, see the abandoned child still sitting on the beach alone in the dark and absolutely helpless. The sheer coldness of the male alien's total indifference to the child, coupled by the equal impartiality of the outdoor elements of which the child is at the mercy of, induced a certain existential chill down my spine and an extreme sense of sadness towards the poor child's imperiled situation, to be sure. As a film maker, Glazer is most certainly playing with his viewer's emotions and sense of humanity here without resorting to typical cinematic tropes mostly found in more mainstream films.

After having collected several victims' bodily contents for her home planet, the female alien is later walking down a busy urban street when she suddenly trips and falls to the ground. A few passers-by come to her aid and help her back onto her feet. She becomes visibly disoriented and uncomfortable by both the fall and, especially, the help bestowed upon her. It shakes her and instantly changes her. She slowly and awkwardly walks away without acknowledging those that helped her. The apparent "inspection scene" happens shortly afterwards, where the male alien slowly walks around his female partner, back at the dimly lit house she has been luring victims into, and stops right in front of her face and looks intensely into her eyes. This "inspection", and seeming suspicion towards her, provokes the female alien to flee from the mission, especially after she picks up what turns out to be her last male victim.

This victim, whom she finally convinces with some effort, to get into her van, suffers from a facial deformity known as neurofibromatosis (similar to John Merrick's disease). After some coaxing from the attractive female alien, the unsuspecting man tentatively gets into the van. His head is covered with a hood and he's socially shy. She finally convinces the deformed man to let down his guard and he then takes the hood off his head revealing his severely deformed face. This does not startle the female alien at all. She simply sees the man as yet another victim to harvest. But as they continue to talk, she pries answers from him concerning his social shyness and late night behavior. To further convince him to relax and open up to her amorous advances she lets him feel her face. This moment of open intimacy between an obviously willing, beautiful woman (at least on the surface of course, according to ours and the deformed man's perspective) and what would be considered an extremely ugly, unattractive man can, and did (I witnessed two sets of couples leave the theater during this very scene), create a sense of discomfort and awkwardness, if not outright disgust, for the viewer. The themes of social identity, discrimination, the standards of attraction and repulsion, and simple human, intimate interaction are played out very effectively during this memorable scene. The theme of "female identity", in particular, is also a major theme throughout the film, depicting both positive and negative stereotypes associated with it.

The female alien succeeds in luring the deformed man back to her "trap room", and he does indeed disrobe and sink into the floor. However, she evidently has a sudden change of heart, a very human sense of compassion and mercy towards the unfortunate man by allowing him to go free instead of being harvested of all his bodily contents, and therefore very life. We see him, completely naked, jog through a field, while it's still nighttime, back to his home, only to be intercepted by the male alien, who hits the ultimate victim on the head and throws him into the trunk of a car that is parked outside of a house that may or may not be his home. At this point we now know that the female alien has officially gone "rogue" and compromised her mission.

She drives the van far away from her base of operations and into a countryside. She then stops the van, gets out and starts to walk in an arbitrary direction until she comes to a small town where she patronizes a cafe. While there she orders a piece of cake. However, her alien body instantly rejects the human food, and she regurgitates it loudly in front of the other customers. We then see her wondering aimlessly until she meets a man who is waiting at a bus stop. It is raining out so he convinces her to wait for a bus inside the bus shelter. She complies without any resistance. This compliance continues as she is then taken back to the strange man's apartment. At this point the female alien is so disoriented by her gradual alteration in feeling and behavior that she nearly becomes catatonic, and verbally unreceptive. The man makes her some dinner (which she doesn't touch, of course) and they watch television. She is visibly fascinated and confused by what she sees flickering from the t.v. screen. The man gives her his room to sleep in. One night she studies her naked human form in a mirror. And later, likely during the next evening, the man makes sexual advances towards her, which she actually welcomes by returning his kisses and embraces. They attempt sexual intercourse, but the man is not able to penetrate her. This attempt at penetration surprises her and she jumps up out of bed, grabs a lamp and inspects the area between her legs, which evidently lacks human female genitalia. This incident provokes her to leave the man's apartment.

Finally, she winds up wondering in the woods where she is met by a logger who tells her that a shelter could be found straight ahead of her. She chooses to go there to rest, but then the logger shows up and cops a feel while she is almost asleep. This appalls her, and so she flees yet again, but is chased by the determined logger through the woods. He catches up to her and tackles her to the ground and attempts to rape her. However, his rough treatment of her suddenly loosens her human disguise and he is stunned by what he sees, which provokes him to run away. The female alien then slips out of her human skin, down to her waist, and turns the human head towards her real alien head, which is dark, smoothly textured and androgynous. The human face's eyes continue to blink and the face emotes a confused look. Suddenly, the logger reappears and doses her with gasoline and lights her on fire. She runs out of the forest all aflame and finally drops to the open ground, burns up and apparently dies. The last shot of the film peers up in to the white snowy sky. The female alien's smoking ashes are met with softly falling flakes of snow. The end.

Another one of Under the Skin's immediate influences that stirred my senses is 70s cinema, and its dark, cynical tone and raw realism. After the failed cultural revolution of the 60s, there was a severe comedown and hangover throughout most of the 1970s, especially expressed in American cinema; that sense of disillusionment and future foreboding, where many were asking out loud or inwardly: "Where do we go from here?", "Who are we now?", "Who are you?", "Who am I?" The sense that I got from Under the Skin is akin to that pessimism and uncertainty depicted in the 70s. Our contemporary culture has been naively intoxicated, distracted by and immersed in a flood of new technology and artificial, cyberspatial experience since Windows '95 was unleashed, where the notions of what makes us human seems to be getting a decidedly disturbing "reboot" and redefinition based on the technological alteration of our world to the indifferent detriment of the natural environment that is becoming more and more alienating to us. We, ourselves, are becoming alien's to our own planet, and, consequently, we are becoming more and more disoriented with each other and the natural world outside of the cyberspace we are spending more and more time inside, so much so that our very bodies, and even respective identities, are becoming alien-like to us, individually and collectively. This, I fervently feel, was expressed brilliantly, however subtly and disturbingly, in Jonathan Glazer's superb, and considerably important, film.          

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