Friday, 13 June 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

Scarlett Johansson oozes sex appeal that can melt a man into a puddle in this update of Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Elizabeth Arden advertisement

While Cubist painting in the early 20th century attempted to freeze the multiple perspectives and spatial relativity from the moving pictures into a single frame, Jonathan Glazer in these early years of the 21st century has put together a film whose visual style and narrative feels like a Cubist rearrangement of modern cinematic genres and tropes, simultaneously coexisting, however incongruously, in one narrative.

I could tell you the film was adapted from a novel by Michael Faber; that isn’t saying much given how Glazer has stripped most its the premise, characters, and their motivations in his Cubist distillation, which has very sparse dialogue and traditional cinematic narration.

It’s perhaps better to say that Under the Skin is a chimera of Species (subverted), a serial killing trucker on a highway horror (genders reversed), and Electroma (played straight). That is to say, Scarlett Johansson plays a seductress donning human skin from a galaxy far far away, whose modus operandi is to drive around Scotland in a beat up car picking up good looking lads and then killing them before the act of sexual congress. And then she discovers something about the nature of humanity. And her humanity.

It is fitting that the film plays like a disjointed Cubist painting stretched out temporally. During the “alien” sequences, the film plays like a Kubrick piece with micropolytonal music, sparse sets, and minimalist, almost geometrical compositions. When Scarlett as stalker wanders the malls, walks the streets, and drives through the urbanscape of Scotland, you’d almost think this is a documentary made with a handheld camera, supposedly by an alien anthropologist studying human society up close—until you notice that the seemingly disjointed cuts follow a disturbing pattern: for a long while, you never get to see what happens after she gets a lad into a car and strikes up a conversation. And well, the “Electroma” section plays like Electroma but without the superior Daft Punk soundtrack.

As a whole, Under the Skin is less than the sum of its parts, but what glorious parts! Jonathan Glazer deserves kudos for realising that film is the art of montage, and then taking this idea to extremes. In its transition from page to screen and also in its experimental approach, Glazer may have lost a chance to expound on gender roles, genre expectations, and the nature of humanity, but he has presented a film that is a slice of pure visual cinema.

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