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Oct 6, 2014

Review: UNDER THE SKIN (2014)

            Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Joe Szula, Kryštof Hádek, Paul Brannigan, Adam Pearson, Michael Moreland, Dave Acton and Jessica Mance

                    Jonathan Glazer

                  To start of my review, I will like to state that "Under the Skin" is simply a masterpiece. It is also one of the most hypnotic, sensory and bizarre films to come out in recent years. Not every film has to be a landmark to be termed as 'masterpiece'. What this film establishes first of all is that there are endless ways to make films, to create art and push the limits of cinema. A film doesn't have to be daring in either political, social or cultural aspect to be applauded for putting itself out there. But the effort counts. There aren't many filmmakers working these days who would even think about coming up with something as nearly strange as this film. This was one of the most anticipated films of the year for me despite not really being familiar with director Jonathan Glazer. His previous two films, "Sexy Beast" and "Birth" went over me, meaning re-visits are in order. Under the Skin immediately won me over and surprisingly so. The build-up towards this film suggested something in the vein of previously done films featuring an alien dropped from sky above on our beautiful planet. Under the Skin looked surreal and out of this world and upon finally watching it, it was even told and designed that way. Meaning it was unlike anything I had ever seen despite the echos one could hear or the occasional glimpses of inspiration that are found here. It may not be based on a 100% original plot line but its concept and exploration is truly original. This is why experiencing cinema and writing about it means the world to me. Under the Skin is a loose adaptation of Michel Faber's novel of the same name. Written by Walter Campbell and Glazer himself. It is a sci-fi art film, an existential drama and a sociological essay on mankind. Startling images ranging from utterly insane to mystical and subdued. From eerie silences to uncomfortable uneasiness created by the excellent sound design. This film has everything and more. It relies mostly on physical storytelling where the images speak more than words may imply. Where action or the lack of it cannot only mean one thing. Every film is basically a personal or subjective experience and so is this one. But every person is going to take away different things from it. This film has received all kinds of reactions which is very usual in such cases. It is not always about a person's reaction towards something but their willingness. One should always try to experience film without letting their pre-conceived judgements come in the way. It is fine to disagree or have a different opinion but when you don't like the challenge sometimes a piece of art offers, you have failed and not the other way around.

                  The very first image in Under the Skin is that of a dot that slowly and steadily takes on the image of an eye. The is the beginning. What does it exactly means? I don't know. But an eye is considered the window to our soul. It is the most spectacular feature on our body because not only does it allows us to see things but have us seen as well. Our brain makes sense of what we see through our eyes. In this film, the eye has the same function for this alien, literal or otherwise. An alien who takes on the body of a young woman to travel in her van and pick up men. She sees our planet through her eyes with such curiosity as a child does when they begin to understand things. We don't know this alien or her intentions. Why is she here and who sent her? This film doesn't work like your typical sci-fi film, it is much more than that. This alien watches over and walks among human beings with a purpose. She too is overlooked by her authority, an alien with a male body driving around on his motorcycle. Her eyes see hundreds of men and women in the streets and on the roads, they are everywhere. She begins to pick up men, lure them like a seductress. Starting her conversation in the typically meandering manner and then slowly amping it up to a point where those men are willing to go to her house. The alien is very precise and clear, she knows what men wants. She also knows their weakness or how they like to be treated by a woman. But the basic fact remains that they all want the same thing. The predator brings her preys to her 'home' where a thick black liquid awaits them. Lust and desires drive them crazy and before even realizing it, the very thing becomes their undoing. The men are immersed in liquid and as we see during one of the highlight sequences, their flesh is harvested. The flesh though not their skin. A skin is useless because it is just a cover, a thin facade to protect. That is the routine which we see repeatedly.

                  There is a disturbing sequence that happens on a beach where we witness the lack of empathy or feelings the alien has. She is not a human of course but the dispassion and disconnect that is visible during that moment is horrifying. Glazer never gives you the answers which is always the appeal. The alien continues performing her tasks but something changes soon. Her sudden empathy becomes her undoing. In what is the most touching sequence one can never expect to see in a film like this, the alien shows sympathy towards one of the men she picks up and let go eventually. As a result of that encounter, something changes within her, something develops. Consciousness? Before that, she was just programmed to look like an attractive woman and hunt down men, now she feels like a woman herself. Her several attempts to be one proves insignificant because she isn't really a human being. But just witnessing the act of self-discovery in the alien is very beautiful. So what does Under the Skin says or implies actually? It isn't easy to figure out the exact points but not impossible. Under the Skin is about what its like to be a human being in this big universe. Where nothing makes the exact sense and every person is for himself. No matter how many or deeper bonds you create or the trust and love you establish, a person is always alone. Where do we come from exactly? We do know that but why? There is no one answer for that. But every person tries to figure that out on their own. They live and experience this world and life through what they see, hear, feel and experience. In life we are always controlled by somebody or something. Mostly it's just us, we never let ourselves break-free and end up confining ourselves to the usual norms. The skin, that is what decides for us. Man or a woman? Fair or brown? Glossy or dull? But what about the thing that actually counts, what is underneath all that? What does our skin has to do with what has to be done or what should be done? After all, its just a facade. It is just what we wear. Why does nobody looks beyond what they see through their eyes? Our brain is functioned to make sense of the images but we are far from a simple mechanical beings. There is more to us that even perplexes the alien in this film.

                  One of the highlights about this film is the brilliant Scarlett Johansson. I don't think that many will deny how much work she put into her portrayal and performance. The way she carries her vague role through every bit of the journey that her own character experiences is amazing. There are layers to her portrayal. Her character knows how to tempt without doing much. The relaxed way Johansson performs during the conversation sequences is to be noted. There is such a contrast in her portrayal where sometimes you know what her character is doing and other times, the character herself seems lost in figuring it out. I haven't even talked about Scarlett Johansson being naked in the film yet, well now I did. She is a beautiful actress no doubt but she doesn't have to be naked to prove that. Her face seems perfect for such a role, her voice a great addition for a character like this, her body-language a nice fit. Under the Skin also gives an impression of a film that in trying to figure out the role of a human being, comments about the role or understanding of a woman and her sexuality. I am not an expert on this topic but this film obviously in picking a female as opposed to the usual male alien, provides an outlook on what its like to be a woman. A woman as opposed to a man has to do and put up a lot to be even recognized or noticed. She has to put herself out there and be what men wants her to be. It is a man's world after all. The skin is all they are left with, all they can show and be appreciated for. What about her feelings? They don't matter. In Under the Skin, the alien is monitored by a male alien. She has to survive by giving men what they want and then doing what she is supposed to do with them. She also gets to know men, talk to them. She also shows sympathy towards one. A man also provides her shelter, feeds her. But then a man also tries to take advantage of her, her skin. So she has to let go of her skin, the meaningless and non-lasting facade and set herself free.

                  The eerie and unsettling atmospherics of Under the Skin are helped first by the superb background score. It adds a lot to some of the more creepier sequences. Exemplary and very unique, suited for and helping the film. Sensory and haunting. A Glazer film has to boost from the visuals no? The cinematography again is excellent. I loved the decision to shoot the film in Scotland. Scottish scenery, the highlands, forests and mountains. These natural places are shot so beautifully, drenched in fog and very isolated. The more populated areas like the city and its streets to shopping places so clogged with people in contrast. Very naturalistic style of shooting there. Some of the still shots in the film have more disorienting feeling though. There are some tracking shots as well like the bike scenes which occasionally disrupts the slow rhythm. Like an approaching doom disturbing the silence. There are plenty of night shots as well. Rain, smoke, early morning mist. Gorgeous but haunting. The pace of Under the Skin is slow but meditative, it never bores or annoys. Glazer not only knows how to compose shots but assemble them in a particular way to create a continuous effect. I mean one can feel that everything is moving forward, towards a conclusion despite the stillness of the action. The shots are edited very well. They create moods ranging from isolation, harmony, horror, transfixation and dread. Otherworldly experience it is. Under the Skin is a film that has equal touching as well as frightening sequences. The opening or the harvesting sequence is just an example. Jonathan Glazer has created a wonderful film, filled with ingenious technical marvel as well as providing a unique sensory experience. A film that leaves one stunned, bedazzled and disturbed. Glazer fills up his film with such baffling and at first, alienating emotional honesty that it makes one shudder. The fact that this film is from an alien's perspective does that. What the images imply or mean, you have time to figure that out later but this film makes one experience them in the fullest evoking responses of varied peaks and intensity. A work of exceptional artistry using its medium for the unexplored path it takes and the different ranges it covers without oversimplifying or over-complicating anything. There is clarity in the aural or visual components and ambiguity in their usage. It slowly traps its audience putting their observational power to full use, manipulating and advancing just like the alien does. A masterpiece, one of the greatest films of the decade.

Grade: A