Review: Under the Skin

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Complacency is comfort, and with comfort comes atrophy. In contemporary cinema, it can be too easy to slip into complacency with tone and execution, especially when trying to avoid audience alienation. Within its first five minutes, its abundantly evident that Under the Skin has no intentions of making any accommodations for any viewer. The film leaves it up to the audience to trust or doubt their senses in navigating its strange but familiar world. Enigmatic but never teasing, and always cool to the touch, it provokes and confounds in every passing scene. Even if its foreboding atmosphere and languid narrative fail to fully pay off, Under the Skin is one of the most purposefully defiant films of the year, an unnerving look at humanity from the outside in.

Even the concept of exposition is thrown out the window as Under the Skin commences in darkness, with a tiny peephole of light in the center of the frame. Whizzing electronic murmurs gradually evolve into something resembling a feminine voice. A series of cuts to bizarre shapes and formations result in the seemingly mechanical formation of a human eye. This is far from suggesting that the owner of this eye is an actual human, however. This being is quite simply not from Earth, but the human shape (Scarlett Johansson) it takes on does well enough in mimicking human gestures. Traveling through Scotland in a van, this being uses its attractive exterior to lure unsuspecting men. Then it takes them to its remote residence and the men are never seen again. Under the Skin presents a series of these occurrences in deliberate fashion, as the men undress themselves and then are submerged in an ink black liquid. What happens to these men in addition to several other scenes makes for some of the most disturbing imagery one can imagine, without a single moment of actual violence.

Taken at face value, the basic narrative of Under the Skin isn’t terribly hard to follow, and this being itself does have somewhat of a character arc, but it’s difficult to say if there’s a sense of culmination or conclusion by the finale. There’s also a secondary male character often seen on a motorcycle who seems to be working with Johansson’s being, but his purposes are never fully brought to light. For what her character requires, Johansson herself is a continuing marvel, edging herself just past the precipice of a recognizable human, with no visible personality or character tics. The casting of all her Scottish counterparts is also quite savvy, in that all of their accents are so thick it’s even difficult to discern if they speak English. Any dialogue present in Under the Skin is solely casual, as the greater mysteries of its narrative are solely suggested by the visuals.

Even if its story denies clarity, Under the Skin is at minimum a tremendous sensual experience. Sonically persistent and visually rich in every scene, one truly gets the sense of an alien experiencing our Earth from the first time. The use of locations in Scotland is quite diverse, from urban streets, to the curving countryside and jagged beaches. As seen through the eyes of this being, nothing is welcoming. The days are overcast and rainy, and the photography mostly favors existing light, save for the overtly surreal passages. The electronic hums that gave birth to this being are present essentially from the first frame to last, ensuring that its point of view is consistently maintained. While director Jonathan Glazer’s film is very much his own, there are more than a few allusions to other filmmakers present. Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch naturally come to mind, but there’s also more than a whiff of Kurosawa in the climax. Loosely based on a novel of the same title, Under the Skin is a natural candidate for repeat viewings. Only then can it be truly determined if it is a mere exercise in cinematic subversion, or if there are more nefarious ideas at work.

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~ by romancinema on April 14, 2014.

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