Monday, July 14, 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

It is a testament to any true mind bending film that their viewers are very nearly put to sleep. A film so artfully esoteric and minimalist strains the patience of an audience. One would be lying not to admit that upon first watching Under the Skin they weren’t close to nodding off. I’m one of those film enthusiasts who makes his friends watch movies he suspects they won’t have the patience to enjoy. I see it as my duty to try to improve their taste and exercise their metabolism for the cinematic art, and thankfully they are always good sports. In the case of Under the Skin I feel bad for what I put them through. Under the Skin is a film which seems to have contempt for the viewer, offering little to enjoy and even less explanation for itself. The film at least bewildered my friends enough that half way through the film they chose to see it through rather then turn it off, partly out of curiosity but primarily to justify the hour already wasted. The last third of the film wakes the viewer from his somnambulance, availing its artistic merit. This doesn’t justify the first hour amounting to cinematic water torture. Nonetheless, if you can stay awake through the entire film and haven’t quit before seeing the ending, Under the Skin gives those few people something haunting to remember. It is the perfect example of a film about which critics write, “I didn’t enjoy it, but I think it’s one of the best films of the year.” 

Under the Skin is one of the more strange and surprising films I’ve seen in a while for a number of reasons. It is incredibly frustrating and confusing, until gradually it begins to makes sense. One thing that is unique about it is that it is not confusing in the sense that there are a lot of moving parts that are difficult to put together. Rather, there are very little parts and none of them are easy to explain. It also throws the viewer off from his or her expectations if they haven't previously read the book. My hope was for something sultry and surreal. Having not read the book, I envisioned Under the Skin to be a stylish sic-fi noir where the beauty of Scarlet Johansson is juxtaposed with the grotesque and supernatural. Something like Bladerunner meets Alien, if Sigourney Weaver turned out to be an alien. Instead the film is as dreary as its setting, with Johansson fitting in about as well in Scotland as she might have if she looked like the alien from Alien.

What can also be disappointing about the film is that Johansson’s talent and charm are completely wasted. Her sumptuous voice, which she used to perfection in Her, is not utilized at all. Her character barely speaks during the entire film. Instead she moves through film, inhabited by an alien, looking about as confused as my friends did while watching the film. The alien-Johansson’s motives and purpose are unclear. Through the first half of the film the alien drives around picking up men off the street by asking them directions then offering them a ride. Thinking they’ve been given an invitation for sex, the men go with Johansson to her apartment where both undress. The men walk towards a naked Johansson and as they approach her slowly sink into a black pool until they disappear. Without having read the book the viewer is left unsure of what has happened to the men. Having read a bit about the book, apparently they are being harvested for the alien-Johansson and another mysterious alien we see riding a motorcycle in the film.

The direction of the story shifts when Johansson picks up a man with Elephant-Man-like facial disfigurements. She feels pity for the man and decides to let him go. After this Johansson begins to feel more human. She tries eating human food given to her by a man she has built a relationship with. When she and this man try having sex, at the moment of penetration the alien-Johansson leaps up and shines a lamp over her vagina. It is as if she hadn't been aware what it was there for. Perhaps then she realizes what all those men she picked up off the street were after. At the end of the film the alien-Johansson is raped by a man in the woods, who rips off the facade of the beautiful actress to reveal a bald black alien. Without speaking for the author or filmmaker, does the alien serve as a metaphor for an adolescent woman's navigation through sexual experiences? Every sexual encounter has stayed under the skin, and the sexual assault too will be trapped there like the men in the black pool.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Immigrant (2013)

A Prisoner of the American Dream

The Immigrant is one of those films which will likely fall through the cracks. For one reason or another which perhaps only Mr. Weinstein can attest, The Immigrant saw an extremely limited advertising campaign and distribution. Given its release early in the year, it will certainly get overlooked come award season despite warranting strong consideration, especially for the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard in the title roles.

The Immigrant looks like many films set in the same time period. The costumes are more understated but the colors are the same. The palette is a wash of mahogany and maroon offset by dim yellow candle and lamp light. Martin Scorsese's television drama Boardwalk Empire also takes place during the 1920's. Unlike Boardwalk which pops with a plastic artificiality having been meticulously touched up on a computer, The Immigrant looks more a like a slowly fading painting. Boardwalk's style immediately catches the attention and admiration of the viewer. The viewer thinks to themselves, where can I buy a gold pocket watch, fedora and matching three-piece suit? The visual style of The Immigrant distracts less and draws one in more to the characters.

In The Immigrant Joaquin Phoenix plays the sensitive but typically bipolar pimp Bruno, who lashes out at his girls while stroking their hand. When his new employee Ava, played by Cotillard, tells him not to touch her, Bruno screams, “I should beat you to death,” but “I want to help you.” Bruno's manic fragility, along with Ava's veiled deviousness make fascinating a less than inspired story. Ava's hatred for her male customers, as well as her pimp, is written on her face, yet her pragmatic desire to get paid is plainly stated. She tells another prostitute, “you don't take my money, ever.” Despite her apparent innocence and virtue, initially Ava would rob Bruno if given the chance. At the beginning of the film, Bruno seems to be stable and wealthy when he buys Ava from Ellis Island. It quickly becomes apparent that he is not only mentally and emotionally unstable, but one misplaced outburst away from either homelessness or imprisonment. Bruno unravels as his possessive infatuation for Ava grows. The initial hatred Ava has for Bruno devolves into a half-hearted sympathy. We can't help but feel for Bruno as the once confident Pimp becomes increasingly pathetic. At the same time we wish Ava would pack her bags and run as far away from him as possible before he does something crazy. Bruno is driven mad by the elusive desire to possess Ava, despite the obvious fact that she doesn't love him. Ava is defiant in the face of a weltering Bruno. His strong-handed pimp persona fails to mask a wimpish insecurity and male inadequacy. Early in the film Bruno attempts to woo Ava with affection and control her with fear, both of which fail.

Like many films about immigrants, life after arriving at Ellis Island seems worse than anything fathomable. Yet immigrants like Ava remain desperate not to be deported. Similar to illegal immigrants today who risk their lives crossing the border, Ava wishes only to find a better life in America and be happy. Her struggle throughout the film serves as a metaphor for how illegal immigrants continue to be mistreated. Ava tells a minister while confessing that she lives like an animal. Illegal immigrants are treated like cattle, degraded and commodified. Bruno saves Ava from being deported by bribing a police officer. He buys Ava and feels that he owns her. She sells her body working for Bruno as a prostitute like modern immigrants sell away their dignity and civil rights to employers seeking cheap labor. The greatest tragedy of the struggles of illegal immigrants is that they are vilified, despite being enslaved in a country which they idealized as a means for salvation. For an illegal immigrant, hopes of living out the American dream quickly become a haunting nightmare in which they are the victim of the ugly side of capitalism. In The Immigrant, Bruno tells Ava at his lowest point, “Forget about me, because I took everything from you and I gave you nothing.”