IMAGINE A CROSS between Eraserhead and Holy Motors. Impossible? That may be the most succinct way to describe the new Jonathan Glazer film Under the Skin. Other films that flashed through my mind: 2001, The Matrix, Teeth, The Elephant Man, American Psycho, The Skin I Live In, Martyrs, The Minus Man. But really Under the Skin can almost perfectly be described as a cross between Eraserhead and Holy Motors. The movie is about an alien seductress / black widow character who goes about on her missions — but we’re never sure exactly what she is.
Under the Skin makes about as much sense as Eraserhead, which is not to say that it doesn’t make sense. But there’s a lot left to the imagination — it’s all a bit of a mystery. You are left to fill in the blanks. It seems the movie could have added about 30 minutes to really explain everything — here and there it seems almost as if a connecting scene has been cut. But I think the open style of the film makes it greater. The movie is based on a novel, which a quick internet check reveals goes a long way to explain thing that are left a mystery on screen. So, without having read the novel, I would say Glazer definitely had his own take on the novel. Wikipedia confirms this, stating that the film was “loosely adapted” from the novel.
Besides not filling in all the blanks, the movie mixes very real-world and seemingly abstract scenes in a way that further makes us scratch our heads a little. See Spoiler Alert below for more on this, for I think I at least partially cracked the code. I am reminded of David Lynch’s response in a Q&A session to someone asking him to explain Mulholland Dr. I couldn’t find that exact exchange, but this quote about his surrealistic films in general is essentially the same:
The language of cinema can say abstract things. It can say things with sound and pictures that go into a viewer’s eyes and heart, and a thing is conjured that is not in a regular language – but there is a knowing, a realisation in the viewer from this language of cinema. It’s beautiful, beautiful language.
He provided this basic answer when asked to divulge the secrets of Mulholland Dr. In other words, he’s not going to tell you a darn thing. You go and figure it out yourself, according to your own interpretations. If you’re going by the movie alone, the exact same thing could be said for Under the Skin.
On top of the masterful filmmaking, Scarlett Johansson turns in another great performance. The film’s limited dialogue is somewhat muted, and often in a thick Scottish accent, to the point that at times it’s difficult to make out. But I think this is deliberate — it’s not always so important what’s being said, but that something is being said in the appropriate context. Talking in this movie is necessary at times to facilitate interactions, but the words themselves are secondary.
Back to Scarlett Johansson — she is turning out to be perhaps the best actress of her generation. Kirsten Dunst I like a lot, and she was incredibly prolific, but she never presented the sheer range that Johansson is putting on display. Neither has Michelle Williams, who is terrific as well. Think about Johansson in just the last year: Her, Don Jon, Captain America, and now Under the Skin, where she executes an authentic British accent. All highly disparate roles, all masterfully executed. She’s pushing up into Meryl Streep territory — all she needs now is a role where she speaks four different languages in a perfect Polish accent.
Under the Skin is an extraordinary film. The evolving puzzle is eminently compelling and captivating. Immediately upon watching it, I was deeply impacted, but my stupefaction was leading me to an 8 rating. Then I had my ah-ha moment (see below), and upon reflection I realized what a great film it is. Disturbing, yes — it will get under your skin, it may haunt you, and it’s the best film of the year so far. 9/10
[UPDATED 7/26/14] — Rating upgraded to 10/10.
2014 in INDIES
2014 is turning out to be quite the year of the edgy indie. Last year we had The East, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — all conventional films which were barely indies at all given the star power.
This year, let’s see — we have Visitors, Nymphomaniac, and Under the Skin. The Jarmusch picture will restore normalcy compared to the avant-garde crop we have so far.
SPOILER ALERT — FURTHER ANALYSIS
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! I am about to reveal some action EARLY in the film, so I am not really spoiling it. But a film as great as this deserves to have absolutely no plot elements disclosed. So DO NOT READ ON until you have seen Under the Skin, or unless you don’t mind a little spoilage.
My stupefaction, my bedazzlement upon watching this film prevented me from understanding how great it was at first. Then I went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I was dreaming about it, affixing the skin of my own right leg with that in the film. And I woke up suddenly, with the light bulb going off:
Early in the film, our nameless protagonist brings back male suitors to her lair. Upon entering, both man and woman begin to strip down in a pure black environment. As the suitor follows, he walks down into a black liquid until completely submerged, while she walks backwards on the surface of the pool. When watching this, I thought it to be purely an abstraction, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it all meant. The lightbulb that went off in my head: As the men enter the black pool, they are actually entering her.
OK, maybe that’s not such the bombshell that I was building up. But it makes sense to me: the black pool is in fact the interior of her body. Now I imagine that reading the novel or its synopsis might lead to a different conclusion. But in the context of the the way the film ends, this idea that when they enter the blackness — which they all do quite willingly, that they are actually being enveloped by her extended body — her version of sexual intercourse — this understanding allows me to grasp the movie in a way that I initially could not.
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A different perspective — more light can be shed from an L.A. Times article on the movie:
“She has no ill will,” said Johansson of her character in “Under the Skin.” “This isn’t a film about woman preying on man or a kind of hypersexual relationship. It has nothing to do with those things, it’s merely a lioness on the prowl, hunting. I think by the end of the film if you as the audience can feel sympathy for this other species as she begins to sympathize with us, that’s the experience.
Well put: that is exactly how I feel about it.