Friday, October 24, 2014

Confusion is sexy: Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Jean-Luc Godard once said that every movie is ultimately a documentary about its actors. This is particularly true of Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer's first effort in ten years. In fact, despite most reviews describing it as a sci-fi film about an unnamed alien, actually the protagonist does have a name: it's Scarlett Johansson.

Some movies, I think, originate as answers to specific questions. I've already examined the case of La Moustache, a puzzling French film that explores the extreme consequences of this bizarre premise: What if an ordinary fact of everyday life like, say, shaving off one's mustache, fell into undecidibility? Under The Skin proceeds from another question: What would it happen if one of our times most iconic divas was completely deprived of her screen persona? The result is another movie that probes the boundaries between reality and fiction, following a tradition that counts films like Ingmar Bergman's Persona, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Leos Carax's Holy Motors among the best examples.

The first scene is perhaps the most enigmatic of the entire film. In the center of the screen a white dot appears on a black background, gradually enlarging before our eyes. If we turned our head in this moment, we would see a specular image behind us: the light coming out of the projector (the very process that makes cinema possible) forms a similar dot on the theater's rear wall. The dot on the screen is then replaced by a sort of levitating sphere being absorbed into a bigger one, in an abstract dance of shapes that at times resembles an eye, or a camera lens. On the sound track, we hear Johansson mechanically pronouncing some words in alphabetical order, not accidentally beginning with the word "film". A match cut from the two concentric spheres to a human iris confirms, if necessary, the meta-cinematic nature of the film we're about to see: the genesis of the film is complete.

The opening sequence, as it sometimes happens, offers one possible key to read the film, as we will see. But before discussing interpretations, let's make a few more general considerations. I don't know about you, but I usually hate reading books' prefaces. I tend to approach any work of art with as little preparation as possible. I don't want to be told in advance how I'm supposed to interpret a text, much less by the author him- or herself. Similarly, I also avoid like the plague movie reviews, trailers and even spoiler-free plot summaries of upcoming movies, as far as advertising bombardment allows. In a way, I try to approach every movie as though I was watching an obscure feature unearthed by a merciful cinematheque. The reason is that, in my opinion, films, books, music pieces and alike live their own lives independently from the author's intentions, and they should be let free to communicate with us in the most direct way possible, free from exegetical or context-related preconceptions. Analysis and interpretation come later, and they're horses of a very different color.

Unfortunately you can't skip movies' opening sequences like you do with books' prefaces. It's part of the game: when entering a theater you consciously subject yourself to an uninterrupted flow of images and sound. Some of the inalienable "Rights of the Reader" as spelled out by French writer Daniel Pennac, among which the right to skip pages, might just not apply to moviegoers or should be formulated differently. In conclusion, we cannot ignore Under The Skin's intro sequence a la 2001: A Space Odyssey because, well, it's there. But at the same time, I think we have to be alert enough to build our own meaning, instead of just following the director's breadcrumbs.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Michel Faber, about an alien who takes human shape and preys on men in the Scottish Highlands. But the film shows something quite different. A man on a motorcycle retrieves the body of a dying woman in a field and loads it into a van. We next see the woman lying on the invisible floor of a white, wall-less room, with Scarlett looming over her. The two women are immersed in a diffused artificial light, without any spatial clue to help us identify where the scene takes place (one may be reminded of The Matrix white room). Then Scarlett undresses the agonizing woman and put her clothes on. We've seen similar scenes in countless other sci-fi movies, so we assume that Scarlett has taken the woman's identity – and her last breath of life, too, if that's what an ant running on Scarlett's hand stands for. Here, like in many other scenes, we find a huge disproportion between what we must infer and what's actually on screen. Every movie asks us to interpolate what we see with our prior knowledge, but Under The Skin is particularly demanding in expecting us to fill the blanks.

Abstract scenes are interspersed with more down-to-earth ones. We see Scarlett walking through a crowded shopping center in Glasgow, cluelessly wandering into a night club, or driving with the van around the city's most solitary streets in search of men to seduce. Johansson's alternates nearly catatonic expressions with more sympathetic ones, suggesting that she's making an effort to behave like a specimen of the human race. There is a distinctively documentary feel to these scenes, thanks to a completely natural lighting as well as to spontaneous performances of unwitting passersby, who were reportedly filmed with hidden cameras. Even in the scene where Scarlett trips and falls on the sidewalk, people's reaction was unstaged (in retrospect it's a very funny scene, if one thinks about how Johansson must have been feeling in that moment). Our decision to call the unnamed seductress Scarlett seems in this light perfectly motivated.

Like an alien mantis, Scarlett lures men in her lair, an all-black virtual space which represents a negative counterpart of the white room seen earlier. In a state of half-consciousness, her victims sink under the surface of a mercury-like floor in the attempt to sexually possess her, while she walks on the fluid's surface undisturbedly, all this happening to the tune of a hypnotic dance of death (the excellent film score, a mix of pulsating electronic music and hectic acoustic strings, has been composed by English musician Mica Levi). The mysterious biker follows her actions and removes the evidence of her crimes. We never find out which type of connection exists between them: Is he her creator? Or maybe her alien partner?

The eponymous book might contain some of the answers we seek, but again, book and film inhabit different narrative planets. Better to look at the prelude scene for possible clues for interpretation. As we have observed this is, among other things, a movie about cinema. In fact, what Scarlett is doing throughout the movie is what she usually does in every movie she's in, namely pretending to be what she's not, and catching people in her magic spell  a tortuous but exact definition of acting. She lives in a limbo between the real and the fictitious world  at times she is a flesh-and-blood woman (as when she wanders through Glasgow and could be virtually recognized by anyone), at others she is pure fiction (when she traps her victims in her liquid snare). In the closing scene, that I won't spoil, abstractness and concreteness somewhat blend together, but at a cost. These two conflicting aspects that coexist in the same human being, the movie seems to be telling us, are impossible to conciliate. Like the plot she's entangled in, Johansson remains an impenetrable mystery (sometimes, um, literally). And who is the man on the motorcycle, who gives her a part to play and observes her moves while at the same time keeping a certain distance, if not the director himself in disguise? And who better than a man wearing a real mask (played by an actor really suffering from neurofibromatosis) could possibly win her sympathy, throwing her in a spiral of confusion and despair?

Don't blame me if this explanation isn't entirely satisfactory. So long as we restrict our knowledge to what's on screen, every interpretation will inevitably be incomplete. The fact is that the plot is deliberately impenetrable. Is this movie the umpteenth parable about what qualifies us as human beings? A Hobbesian reflection on mankind's intrinsic evil? Or maybe a self-referential meditation on the Seventh Art? Glazer has orchestrated the movie precisely so that we come out of the theater in confusion. The clues we piece together just aren't sufficient to build up a full-fledged story unless we introduce, with a considerable degree of arbitrariness, some information that the film lacks. Take for instance the scene that comes after one of those dance-of-death moments, where we see a red lava-like blob flowing down a sloping channel. How does this link with the previous scene and the rest of the movie? Consider the so-called Five Ws and one H, the basic questions we usually ask in order to collect comprehensive information about any phenomenon:

  • Who is it about?
  • What happened?
  • When did it happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?

In our case, only the "How" can be partially answered: it happens with a fluid, descending movement. As for the five Ws, we can only hazard hypotheses. What is that blob? Who produces it? Where does the scene take place? and so on. From my standpoint, it represents the alien's intestines evacuating what is left of the poor Glaswegians, but if you came up with a completely different explanation, it would be hard to contradict you.

We can find more or less satisfactory answers to our questions about what Under The Skin is ultimately about. But the most fundamental question remains: Why so obscure? Does Glazer's hermetic approach fulfill specific expressive needs, or is it just a slap in the face of his audience? That he wants to elicit strong reactions is beyond question. This is evident not only in the hard-to-pin-down plot, but also in how the movie ostensibly defies established moral norms. The infamous beach scene, which shows Scarlett passively witnessing a man's drowning and condemning his infant son to certain death with her indifference, has seen numerous walk-outs in theaters. When asked how would he feel about universal acclaim for his latest film, Glazer replies, "It would be a failure", in tune with Arnold Schönberg's conviction that "If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art".

But Glazer's intentions, I think, go beyond mere provocation. A mixture of fiction, documentary and abstract film, Under The Skin plays drastically with film form. Thus, given its deeply experimental nature, we shouldn't be surprised if it also takes some risk in presenting narrative in an unconventional manner, for example by suppressing essential details about places, characters' background, and causal relations between events. But the lack of a clear-cut narrative structure also serves a purely esthetic criterion: a film that defies explanation exudes fascination and mystery, and appeals to the very same principle that keeps cinema alive, the desire for the unknown. On the other hand, the supernatural theme is also a pretext for Glazer to showcase elaborate, exquisite imagery that doesn't necessarily need conceptual justification, a characteristic often associated with abstract art. In particular, the scenes where Johansson seduces men are constructed as unrealistic, stand-alone sequences, and possess a weird internal logic all their own like we often find in music videos. That Glazer has also a successful career in this field seems, in fact, perfectly appropriate. (More disquieting, if possibly irrelevant, is to discover that he directed an alternate video for Jamiroquai's 1996 song "Cosmic Girl", unfortunately unavailable on the internet.)

I would add an ulterior reason for the film's mysteriousness. If there is one thing ambitious artists like Glazer fear more than critical panning and audience derision, that is categorization. Complexity is an indispensable quality for a movie that aspires to be not your average science-fiction movie, but "a sort of a movie that asks existential questions and much more complex than the logline", as Johansson herself describes it. Personally, I don't think Glazer has succeeded to make such a challenging, complex film, neither I found the film's visual qualities so transcendentally beautiful as to sustain its narrative elusiveness. Nevertheless, it's still the work of a daring, not-shy-of-a-challenge director who deserves our attention in the years to come.

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