Film Micrœview #75: Under the Skin (2013)

05.17.2014 § Leave a comment

Rating: Dr. Pepper.

I heard this movie was slow. It was not slow. I had plenty to ponder and savor as it went. Honestly I would have watched this for twice as long at half the pace. Often the layers of meanings and switches in tone and focus felt like they were blasting by at breakneck speed. Nothing that lingered felt indulgent (though I admit that I’m the kind of guy who would have watched the camera get covered with snow at the end).

I heard this director was “Kubrick’s heir”. It wasn’t too Kubricky, either. Sure, the opening titles were some next level Space Odyssey shit, and there was one trip out sequence that might have involved flowing blood… but this was completely different, it was chunky with guts, and flowed out from the screen). If anything, this film recalled Kiarostami’s Ten. And at times it shared the methodical, beautiful, and playful doom of Chanwook Park.

There are many films within this film. It’s actually rather conventionally structured, and its phases have their own distinct moods. Everything was perfectly constructed, paced, and necessary. The gradual build-up of Scarlet Johansson’s character’s relationship to fear and danger, from the assault on her van by hooligans at night, to her vertigo on the castle ruins, finally to the ill-fated logger encounter.

This movie would have been worth the price of admission just for the pop. I’ll say no more. You’ll know what I mean when it happens.

The trip out scenes contained imagery which pleasantly reminded me of some Tool music videos. The score by Mikachu, vaguely spectral, was incredible and stands alone as a huge accomplishment. There was one shot where its percussion turned into a pulsing jackhammer — this also being one of very few shots with moving camera — which put together with a surprise at the end was one of the more uniquely chilling images I have ever encountered on screen.

The camerawork was precise and breathtaking. The natural beauty of Scotland is overwhelming here. Curls in the seashore mist, rippling fog. But there was even a shot of a drab restaurant interior that was just so perfectly lit, composed, and arranged, that I almost gasped. There was another moment when Scarlet’s losing herself in the sights and sounds of the people of Edinborough where dozens of shots get layered transparently over each other, which has been done before (Amos Gitai‘s entry in To Each His Own Cinema, Le Dibbouk de Haifa, I believe) but was awesome here. Many shots were taken in the early, early morning, looking gorgeous and also evoking the oblivious, uncaringness toward human normalcy of this character (and making me feel frazzled and stretched out like I do after all-nighters). The visuals supported well the inexplicable origins of the forces at play — all we really get is some haunting glowy swirly purple lights over a building.

That this is a higher order of being from us that cares little for us as individuals was made quite clear from the start. She regards an ant that was crawling on a dead human body. This symbol could have been handled with no subtlety at all, but the irreal ultra-close-up of this ant doing its ant thing worked. Easy couldn’t have, but Glazer pulled it off. Makes it all the more heart-sinking later when that baby is abandoned on the beach. Johansson’s sudden swings into catatonia are unnerving.

The menace and mystery of Scarlet’s biker companion was expertly handled. I appreciate movies for which you must bring lots of yourself to the story to make sense of it. That he’s just this looming male thing — I am sure that this film could be subjected to a gender reading — and I do mean beyond a mere superficial “return to the womb” sort of thing tied to the visuals of her victims. I mean more like the history of woman, of born-again virginity, etc. Some may find the hunter-becomes-the-hunted twist at the end lame, but to me there is so much more in the balance there, good and evil, great and meek…

It’s unclear who we should identify more with here at the end, and I believe that ambiguity is intentional. It’s all so uncanny. The choice of Scotland feels intentional, no matter where you’re from. For native English speakers from anywhere else their thick accents are almost indecipherable. For everyone we’re given a Czech traveller who comes to Scotland because “it’s nowhere.” When Scarlet drives around in the first phase of the movie, several of these shots are clearly of non-actors, who may not know they ever got recorded, adding a reflexive, creepy, stalkerly layer to the whole experience of watching the film. I heard that some of the guys that hop in her van and have prolonged conversation with her were truly random pickups on the streets too. This movie contains among so many other things beautifully the terror of others. We are all this being, solipsistically.

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