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.

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