I’m going to say this right now; I know it’s early in the year and I’ve hardly seen anything, but if I see another 2014 I love more than this it’ll be a great year. The covert and beguiling Under the Skin rattled me to my core.
Image-centric storytelling, with roots in experimental cinema, that distances itself from mankind. Birth to death, human as alien, alien as human. Firmly divided into two parts, routine and the failing quest for basic human pleasures, with the key transitional scene being Laura’s (nobody has any names, including Laura, but she’s billed as such so it’s just easier for me to follow suit) (Scarlett Johansson) encounter with a man with neurofibromatosis. Before that, she goes about her business, luring and leading men into an abstract and oily black digestive space. There’s no connection between her and her body, her victims, or feelings. But gradually the loneliness starts to sink in, and with it the isolation that humans may experience. She begins to seek out basic human pleasures like eating, sex, and companionship, inquisitive and nervous like a child. She knows she needs something, but is unsure how to go about it.
When Under the Skin ended, I felt like I’d been scooped out from the inside. It’s one of the saddest and loneliest films I’ve ever seen. Scarlett Johansson is mainly a presence for the first half, removed and captivating. And then in the second half she is heartbreaking; confused, yearning and unfulfilled. The final minutes, in which she is pursued by a man in the musky never-ending forest, is so palpable; you can feel her fear. Predator to prey. The second she desires the human instinct she loses so much agency. She becomes vulnerable and susceptible, her lair further and further away, unable to reconcile that yearning. We sense the irreparable loss of that center, her time dwindling. My boyfriend found something peaceful about the one-with-the-snow ending, but I didn’t. I just can’t; it’s not in my nature.
The formalism contributes to a new withdrawn perspective of ourselves, as something Other and incomprehensible. The thick Scottish accents further that distance, as does Mica Levy’s slinky and exotic high-pitched string score, and the sound design where much is compressed and blanketed over. Take for instance, as an example of said withdrawn perspective, the way Glazer shoots the scene on the beach, in which attempted rescue causes a chain reaction of familial death, a wailing abandoned baby as sole survivor. Laura, and thus we, take all of it in at once and for what it is (death) with unfeeling coldness. The discrepancy between what is happening, and how we see it, is very disturbing. And then Laura murders a man with a rock, and it’s the opposite of how murder is usually depicted in film. There is no close-up, no sound effect, and no clear view because Laura is crouching with her back to us. The impact of the scene is that there is no impact, and that lack of impact in turn translates to its own unique impact for the audience.
The film does not pass judgment on Laura. As she observes us, we observe her, and ourselves through her. Another layer to this is gradually added when Laura begins to observe herself, in a successive set of mirror scenes as she considers her new form. This observation becomes out-of-body in the end. No mirror is needed in her last moments. There’s certainly an angle on femininity, female sexual power, what it means to be a woman, and examining the male gaze, but I can’t parse through what I take from that with one viewing.
Generally, I think more filmmakers and producers need to put their trust in the communicative power of the image (and in viewers), especially since it’s what the medium inherently is to begin with. Under the Skin hypnotically uses impressionistic imagery and Scarlett Johannson’s face as narrative (there is very little dialogue overall) for a final product about existential isolation and irreconcilable cognizance that I still haven’t been able to shake two weeks later.
It’s the Little Things:
– Speaking of the power of the image, I couldn’t help but think of “Hannibal” which is putting more stock in abstract strokes of impressionism in its cinematography, editing, and score than most films I see.
– The section of Levi’s score used during the attempted sex scene is astonishing stuff. Astonishing.
– The final scene in the forest. I don’t even know what to say about it except that I cried but in a way that evoked rare kinds of feeling in me (not in the volume of tears as there weren’t many, but in the profundity and sadness of it).
– The shot where Laura scoots back to the wall in the forest’s rest area hut
– The digestion scene disturbed the hell out of me and made me jump a bit. Ever wonder what a Suck-O-Matic for people would look like?
– So I was well aware of the hidden camera methods of working that make up a lot of Johansson’s van-cruising interactions. And I kind of wish I hadn’t as it’s impossible not to be distracted by it once you know it. The unnatural naturalness of them are given a context I wish I didn’t have.