Combustible Celluloid
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With: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Krystof Hádek, Jessica Mance, Scott Dymond, Joe Szula, Michael Moreland, Lee Fanning, Ben Mills, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Jeremy McWilliams
Written by: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell, based on the novel by Michel Faber
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language
Running Time: 108
Date: 04/04/2014

Under the Skin (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Original 'Skin'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It took director Jonathan Glazer ten years to make his third feature film, which is rather incredible for the talented fellow who made Sexy Beast (2001) and Birth (2004), not to mention the great music video for Radiohead's "Karma Police." Apparently, there were no other projects during this time; it took ten whole years to make Under the Skin.

It's based on a 2000 sci-fi novel by Michel Faber, which -- though I have not yet read it -- is probably quite a bit more literal than Glazer's movie. The novel probably offers explanations, and perhaps even lays out its themes. But the movie mainly gives impressions, emotions, moods, and sensations. Much of it is not explained and it very often feels like dream logic. The result is that it's a supremely compelling and powerful movie.

Scarlett Johansson, perhaps the only professional actor in the cast, stars as a beautiful young woman in Scotland. In the novel, her name is Isserley; her name in the movie is listed as "Laura," but I can't remember her giving it, although it could be a fake name to satisfy one of her victims. The movie doesn't explain what it is she's doing, and we are asked to pick it up as we go. Among the first images is a pure white room. The woman regards the body of another woman, probably dead. Then she begins stripping the clothes from the dead woman, and putting them on.

From there, we see the woman driving around in a van. She looks at people walking by. She speaks to certain men, asking them about families or girlfriends. Finally she finds a man that has no one. She gives him a ride, and takes him back to her place. She enters. It's very dark. She turns to the man, walking backwards, encouraging him inside. She begins to remove her clothes. He does too. Soon he's naked, but something else is happening. He's sinking into the floor, like he's wading into a black ocean. Before long he's gone, under the surface of some gleaming black muck, though there's not a single ripple on the surface, and the woman doesn't seem to sink at all.

Meanwhile a man on a motorcycle, wearing a helmet most of the time, seems to be working with her. At first, it's not clear whether they're partners, or whether he's the boss, or whether she's the boss. Perhaps they're both working for some higher power. His job seems to be to clean up after her; sometimes kidnapping people can be a messy business.

Eventually it becomes clear that this is some kind of routine, and after a while it occurs to us that the woman has neither slept nor ate, and perhaps doesn't need to (or can't, as a later scene suggests). But things begin to happen to push her out of her routine. First is a shocking scene on a beach. Next, she meets a man with neurofibromatosis (the "Elephant Man" disease). He stirs up some kind of pity within her and she lets him go. The routine broken, she begins a kind of existential search, going into the woods. There's more, but I'll leave off there.

The first thing I'll say about Under the Skin is that it takes the time to show the routine, and to allow it to sink in as a routine. We see processes repeated. Many movie stories are about routines broken, but few of them bother to show much of the routine. The mistaken assumption is that routine is "boring," when it invariably tends to add depth to a story and character.

I also love Glazer's non-literal approach, which is even more vague than in Birth. The only information viewers get is whatever we can see and hear, intuit and interpret. Mica Levi's incredible score only makes things seem less certain. It's rare that a movie treats us as active participants in the process, rather than just empty vessels with a wallet and money for a ticket.

Since Glazer filmed with hidden cameras and used whatever non-professionals that would speak to his lead actress, the movie has an incredible sense of life, of authenticity. These are people going about their lives, heading places, doing things. Additionally, the Glasgow setting provides a powerful sense of place, from the city center, to the rain-slicked roads that the motorcycle man speeds along to a cabin in the woods.

So what is going on here? Clearly the woman's entire existence is about sex. She knows how to entice men, and get them to do what she wants, but she doesn't seem to know much about the actual sex act. She also doesn't seem to understand death, as her face shows as she walks blankly away from one of the most horrifying scenes of the past several years. So are sex and violence intertwined? Certainly there's some connection in life, as when lovers want to "devour" their partners, and the movie doesn't ignore this idea. The movie's conclusion is a rough, brutal combination of these themes.

As for Johansson, she is without a doubt among our finest actresses, and the most willing to take chances on material. She has never had an Oscar nomination in her adult career, which began with potent performances in 2001, in Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn't There. More so than simply using her smoky voice to recite lines, she has a sense of life lived, a soul, an earthiness and a built-in sensuality that's rare in actresses. (Maybe her use of an English accent in this movie will get her some notice.)

It goes without saying that she's also one of the most beautiful women in the world. And, yes, she appears naked in Under the Skin, which you've no doubt already heard about. The nudity is not meant to be sexual, or even gratuitous, and not even for beauty's sake, but merely for curiosity. She simply wishes to study her skin, the shapes and textures of it, and it's an incredible moment. If that factor draws more people into the theater to see this unique, amazing movie, then it can only be a good thing.

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