Every so often there comes a film that’s so far off on the strangeness scale that you don’t even know what to make of it. Do you like it? Do you hate it? Are you supposed to like it? Is this confusion intentional, and if so, what does it say about you, your neighbor, the critics and society?
Movie snobs are the types of people to make the distinction between movies and film. If you’re in front of a really big one, you might even have to deal with cinema – but they’re all the same. Movies are, amongst many things, an experience and what separates a movie from what I image film snobs to mean “art” is usually the intention. Is this movie presented in a gallery as an art installation or in a commercial theatre? This is where Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror film Under the Skin gets mistaken.
I watched the film for the first time with a group of people who seemingly hated the film by the end of the 90 minutes it was on screen, and not wanting to be that guy (girl) who distinguishes film from movies, I kept my mouth shut. I said something probably even more pretentious: “I’m developing a theory.” I knew I wanted to like the film. Inherently I did. It’s a stunning visual piece – atmospheric in the best sense of the word, and yet “grating” comes up as one of the feelings when watching it. That’s what my resident film buff Carlos Bueno said, who I watched the film with for his birthday.
Within the sci-fi genre, two types of narratives stand out, he said. The first is the sci-fi film that spoon feeds the audience an explanation. It’s the “In a world …” movies like Godzilla, The Matrix and Independence Day, where everything as far as the setting, tone and moral of the story is explicitly stated. They’re viewer friendly, action packed and don’t require heavy analysis or friendship jeopardizing stances. Then there’s the sci-fi film based on realism, which I’ll say is where “Under the Skin” lies in its subtlety. Nothing is explained, the setting is inferred as well as the story. But after the initial exposure to the movie, I realized that if Glazer made this film for mass appeal, essentially if he explained it to us, it wouldn’t have been the same film.
The film’s heavy reliance on atmosphere and scenery made it similar to an art installation, which is problematic for a commercial film. Not in the sense that commercial films can’t or shouldn’t be thought provoking or beautiful, but in the sense that the audience, to a degree, expects a certain experience when sitting down in a theatre to watch a film. At the least, the audience wants to be entertained. Under the Skin didn’t disappoint, just it wasn’t conventionally acceptable for theaters.
There wasn’t that instant gratification that comes with an immediately or eventually understood plot delivered through dialogue. The dialogue in Under the Skin is muddled. The men Scarlett Johansson’s character encounters speak with such thick Scottish accents it’s difficult for an American viewer to fully comprehend, and it’s nothing against the Scots – there’s plenty of rom coms and action movies that don’t leave the viewer feeling like they need subtitles to really get it. What the characters say is essentially unimportant. Johansson’s character drives around Glasgow, Scotland, striking up conversation with men while asking for directions. An alien sent on earth to probe and discover the human experience, at first to blend in, lures men in sexually to feed off them. It’s superfluous, but after her second victim, we get the gist of it. These mundane conversations are just the vehicle that eventually leads to what brings man and woman together – sex.
Carlos and I agreed that the movie was divided into three parts. The first was a sci-fi experimental film, evidenced by the opening credit sequence, futuristic settings of white and black limbos, monsters without faces or forms and a general lack of understanding of what the movie is about which mirrors humans’ understanding and mythicism to an alien species. Then the movie, along with its protagonist, begins to show the slightest bit of emotion and the audience becomes more invested in the story once a story is easily detected. Johansson plays the role of Laura, the alien/woman protagonist, with a delicate attention to detail. Make no mistake, it’s impressive to out do Ryan Gosling’s driver in Drive, for being a mostly silent character. Johansson’s body is exploited and explored in this film, by the viewer which takes on the role of the male gaze and subsequently by Johansson, herself, in this second part of the movie. The final category the movie takes is that of an exhibitionist film, where violence is used to make a point about the male gaze, understanding one’s own sexuality and the human race not bothering to understand or learn about the unknown, but rather resorting to destruction when puzzled or thrown out of conventionality.
This is what Carlos said:
“On a more personal level, the film is a dissection of the protagonists’ motives within her role, ordered to seduce men, she struggles with the moral and emotional conflict of doing her job, while being mysteriously attracted to and repulsed by the human species. She fluctuates between attitudes: some men are hostile, sexually, or through violence as was the case with the woodsman, or the nightclub smooth talker, or the gang of street boys who attacked her car, who conflict with her amused affinity for genuine affection(the man who lodged and fed her) altruism, or innocence (the man with a deformed face).”
The first theory I came up with upon walking out of the theatre was that Under the Skin was one of those movies about movies. Films like Holy Motors, which offer a degree of self-reflexivity in their film-length mise-en-scene. Under the Skin, to me, is many films wrapped up into one neat, yet perplexing package, but this might be my favorite box inside. Acting as a meditation or commentary on filmic sex scenes, Under the Skin explores the male-female relationship that movies rely too heavily on. It’s presumed that every male protagonists needs a decidedly female love interest or that the female in a romantic comedy is either A) looking for love or B) firmly against men but will inevitably change her mind and find “the one.” There is no such thing in Under the Skin, which could be why it’s so troubling to viewers and why some people might write it off as a pompous art film with no backbone. Like the woodsman who can’t understand why Laura doesn’t want sex and when he discovers her true form refuses to understand what she truly is and instead acts in a violent manner, some viewers won’t get this film because they haven’t put the time in to think about it. That may sound arrogant, but a movie that makes you confront a challenge will always be worth watching – even if you prefer getting high and watching this like it’s Planet Earth (I don’t recommend that, but I totally see this movie hitting cult-like status with stoners in a couple of years).
Here’s what Carlos said on the subject:
“This mimics the apprehension of the inpatient viewer, demanding the movie to reveal itself right away, define itself, reduce itself to something very sharp and simplistic, so as to dominate it. And the movie is simply reluctant to do so.
This experience reminded me of [Spike Jonze’s] Her in the way the story had the potential to veer off into different avenues of interest, like the depiction of the isolated individual caused by the overbearing nature of technology, or the limitless capabilities of a virtual consciousness reduced to such a menial task(looking after the interest of Joaquin Phoenix), the turmoil of clashing personalities who were once in love, even touching on the existential curiosity of the perfect match between people, or things. When Theo [Phoenix’s character] finds out that his operating system is having conversations with 8,000 other people simultaneously, and is in love with some percentage of them, the movie’s shift collapses back onto its mopey self centered, boring protagonist and HIS NEEDS, instead of carrying on with what happened to the operating system, or coming to terms with why he couldn’t naturally satisfy a post-human type of consciousness. The movie should have been called ‘Him.'”
Whatever avenue you decide to take your understanding of the film, it’s best to think of it as something more than just a movie for your entertainment. It might be boring at times, but when it is, the breathtaking atmosphere and camera work make up for it. Images of artificial and natural beauty are superimposed with our girl in question, never submitting to the typical movie montage. This might have to do with Mica Levi’s wonderful soundtrack, which teeters back and forth between spacey, suspenseful and even romantic.
Under the Skin is a movie that will stick with you weeks after watching it, and while we may not have a uniform understanding of the purpose, its essence is enough to get us to think deep enough about our own skin and the metaphysical world beyond it.