Venture More Deeply Under the Skin

Under the Skin

I’ve made the point before that I will not award a 10/10 rating to a movie until some time has passed after watching.  A 10 rating indicates not only something truly great, but a timeless film for the ages — a masterpiece.  A classification not to be doled out haphazardly.  Though just three months have passed since watching Under the Skin, its memory continues to pervade my consciousness.  It is a haunting film that has made an indelible mark on the landscape of cinema, and a lasting impression on me.  A film that I’ve not only thought about a great deal, but that has found its way into my dreams.  And the time has come to award it my 10 rating.

For such a short time to have passed, this is a bit of a risk for me.  I would look foolish if a year or two or ten from now I reflected again on Under the Skin and felt it did not warrant a 10 rating.  It is a testament to how strongly I feel about the movie that I’m placing the 10/10 label on it so soon.

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Under the Skin - Come to Me

If you read my original review, understand that my analogy to a cross between Holy Motors and Eraserhead, though still valid, is no longer the way I would couch a discussion of Under the Skin.  That was my best effort at wrapping my head around this extraordinary film, of digesting it immediately upon consumption.  My understanding of the film has deepened since then, and I realize now that it demands to be dealt with strictly on its own.  It is so unique that comparison to other movies is not particularly useful to gain an understanding of it, except as an academic exercise.

But indulge me for a moment while I contradict myself.  In a state that was half waking and half sleeping, another comparison came to me: 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Based on Under the Skin, the filmmaker Jonathan Glazer has been compared by at least one critic to Stanley Kubrick.  There are a couple visuals that bring to mind 2001; I cite examples below.

But beyond the obvious, Under the Skin may be seen as an incredible twist on 2001, and here it is: in 2001, we had the monolith.  But here, the girl is the monolith.  Under the Skin - monolith text block 2Her body — whatever that exactly is, her charming ways, her black pool, her entire alien presence.  The monolith has returned to earth, but it has folded in on itself and become this very human, and simultaneously very alien sexual being.  The blackness, the void — all the abstract and mystical bounds of humanity represented by the monolith of 2001 are now embodied with this young woman.  Instead of the monolith as something seen from afar, and hesitantly approached for a closer glimpse or a touch, it has now become something you enter, something that envelops you.

Now mind you, I don’t believe Glazer or the novelist Michel Faber had 2001 in mind at all when composing Under the Skin.  But you can tell that this movie has fired up a lot of synapses in my brain.  Know too that the whole idea of an interpretation of Under the Skin as a greatly distorted retelling of 2001 is but one point of discussion, not a way to contain, define or delineate it in any way.

Continued analysis, discussion and debate are often the fruits of a masterwork.

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This is one of those rare moments when a movie can just knock you over the head and flatten you.  Under the Skin operates on different levels: as a mystery, as a tale of survival, and as an exploration of sexuality and humanity.  Its profound depth is reinforced by its haunting, aptly-science fiction score and a darkened Scottish setting.  Just phenomenal.

With a movie this great, it doesn’t matter much to me what other critics are saying, but the high praise it has received is, I admit, reassuring.  Check out the official site and its culling of criticism — what might be hyperbole for a lesser film is anything but for this one.

But there were some negative reactions, among both professional critics and amateurs.  On Amazon, it only has a 2 1/2 out of 5 star rating.  A typical review:

A very beautifully photographed, but very odd film. Director was clearly a fan of Kubrick. Long, slow scenes with not much going on. Not appropriate for younger viewers and people that enjoy a faster pace.

Now I normally am not interested in citing dissent, but I have a point to make.  People who did not like this movie all have one thing in common: they just didn’t get it.  It went way over their head.  And I get that.  That’s the first level I mentioned: a mystery.  A mystery for the viewer to figure out.  Only then do the other two levels reveal themselves — that of  the survival adventure of the “lioness on the prowl”, as Scarlett Johansson put it, and then that of an exploration into human sexuality.

Under the Skin - depth text blockSo my point here is the fact that so many people did not like it does not indicate weakness or a lack of quality, but exactly the opposite.  A lot of people will be out of their depth with Under the Skin, and will not be able to get anything out of it.  As I said, I get that.  I had my hands full trying to comprehend this movie as I sat through it.  But if you can grasp it at all, it will stay with you.  You’ll be able to attain your own ways of understanding it.  And like any truly great art, its greatness will only expand from there.

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iTunes extras graphicLest I forget to mention, there are now iTunes Extras available when you purchase the movie from Apple — this, and the upgrade to a 10 rating, constituted my original impetus for this post before I decided I had a helluva lot more to say.

The Extras are only available with the purchase (not rental) of the movie in HD ($15), and include 10 featurettes.  My inclination is that if I’m going to buy this movie, I’d rather have the Blu-Ray disc.  Now a check on Amazon does not mention the Extras, but I found a review of the Blu-Ray that confirms the featurettes are included.  So if I decide to purchase the movie, I’ll get it on Blu-Ray, and perhaps return it if the featurettes are not there.  I don’t recommend anyone purchase the movie unless they’ve already seen it.

Personally, this movie is still so vividly held in my memory that I don’t feel a need to purchase it — yet.  But those featurettes I am curious about, so I will probably buy it sooner than later.

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What Lies Under the Skin? [u]

Under the Skin - Instagram #2IMAGINE 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, MartyrsThe 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 inDavid Lynch text block 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.

Under the Skin - poster

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 Scarlett Johansson - text blockaccent.  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.

Under the Skin - Instagram #1