Under the Skin

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Much like a great piece of music, a great film will often continue to blossom long after it’s experienced.  The richness of such work can render it too dense to absorb all at once, and only after deconstructing and reassembling its layers can one appreciate its full impact.  For me, this has certainly been the case with Under the Skin, which is without a doubt the best film I’ve seen so far this year. As I write these words it’s been about a month since I saw Under the Skin and I’ve relished the experience of uncovering more and more to admire about it with the passage of time.  This film is a unique union of its director’s uncompromising vision, an amazing score, and a career best performance from one of the most talented young actors working today. Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) took almost 10 years to get this film made, releasing nothing in the interim, and it shows.  To describe the story as a gorgeously disguised alien’s earthbound adventures in the seduction and destruction of human men would be accurate, but misleading.  Based very loosely on a 2000 novel by Dutch writer Michel Faber, Glazer’s film adaptation is far less specific and more poetic than the source material and highlights the headier themes that arise from the interstellar protagonist’s confusion with the human world and her grapplings with the morality of her mission.  It does contain a few missteps, but its cumulative power allows those minor flaws to be easily forgotten by the conclusion.

Yes, on paper Under the Skin sounds like The Man Who Fell to Earth meets Species, but Glazer plays the potentially B-movie material with a combination of restraint and merciless gravity that allows the film to transcend any genre-specific limitations.  The experimental opening sequence is eerily breathtaking, due just as much to the score and sound design as to the visuals themselves. The warbling, distorted voice that gradually emerges from among the cacophony skillfully communicates what is happening in this rather abstract introduction, and the unearthly, dissonant score created by English singer/songwriter/producer Mica Levi remains a vital component throughout the film.  Personally I’d never heard of Levi (also known by her stage name “Micachu”) before seeing the film, but her fascinating string arrangements and canny use of recurring musical themes has immediately thrust her into the realm of other popular-musicians-turned-film-composers who’ve made that transition with resounding success (see Jonny Greenwood’s work with Paul Thomas Anderson and Trent Reznor’s work with David Fincher).

For Scarlett Johannson, the lead and only notable professional actor present (many of the film’s subjects are untrained, or even unknowing, participants) this is, simply put, next level shit.  Her performance represents the final phase of a full transition to “serious actor” that began when she starred in Lost in Translation, continued through her work with Woody Allen and reached a fever pitch with last year’s Her.  When we first see Johansson’s alien dropped into the dreary Scottish setting and slide behind the wheel of her big white van, she exudes an absolutely convincing otherworldly quality, wearing her body like a costume and her face like a mask.  The awkward, almost crustacean, way she clutches the wheel in her first driving scene (of which there are many) subtly yet pointedly suggests that this being understands what it means to be human in theory if not in practice.  But over the film’s 108 minutes Johansson makes an utterly authentic transition from predatory callousness to childlike wonder to confused vulnerability by the harrowing climax.

There are so many memorable shots in Under the Skin that are not only visually arresting, but also carry a heavy emotional weight within the context of the narrative.  A baby on a beach, crying, struggling to take its first steps; two hands reaching for each other through a blue murk; smoke rising slowly into falling snow.  With each of these shots, Glazer coveys feeling more articulately than words could.  Others simply display the depth of the filmmaker’s skill and creativity: a camera mounted to the front of a motorcycle frames the driver like a helmeted spaceman while also making an oblique nod to Kubrick’s 2001 (not the only shot that does this); shots of random human activity layer continuously on top for each other, eventually creating a glimmering field of gold light before Johansson’s face emerges at the center.  These are impressive examples of what Glazer can do, many of which were understandably used in the film’s trailer, but in context they’re even more impressive in their lack of contrivance.

As I mentioned, my gripes with the film are minor and rather subjective, but worth noting.  For one, I was disappointed with the extent to which the alien’s true form was revealed.  Less is always more with things like this, in my opinion.  However, it was done tastefully enough; it’s more the choice to go there that I disagree with.  Another late scene depicting an aborted sexual encounter seems to reach for laughs, but the joke doesn’t quite land, skewing the otherwise perfectly balanced tone and missing an opportunity for a more serious exploration of the character’s engagement with this vital piece of humanity.  However, another scene where our protagonist tries eating chocolate cake for the first time is pure comedy gold!

If this all doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, maybe it won’t be, but I’d challenge anyone to identify another film like it.  It really is a one-of-a-kind concoction, and personally I found it to be thrilling and moving.

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