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Under the Skin, Something

May 12, 2014

Early last year I wrote a post about my three most anticipated movies of 2013: Spring Breakers, Upstream Color, and Under the Skin. The release of the last ended up being delayed until this year, so I can only now say that each proved to be completely satisfying. I chose the films based purely on their directors, each in his own way unusual, exciting, visionary, and each frustratingly slow to produce new work. All confirmed their special place in cinema. These are movies that deliver powerful and unique viewing experiences that linger in the mind.

Unfortunately, my experience of Under the Skin was marred by a brightly glowing exit sign, just to the right of the bottom of the screen in Theater 1 at the Charlottesville Downtown Regal. Distraction evolved into rage and sorrow, and I was less than perfectly attuned to the early scenes of the movie. Eventually, some neural resourcefulness came to bear, blocking out the sign from my attention, though it would break through from time to time throughout: EXIT, EXIT, EXIT. But even under these far from ideal circumstances, the power of the film came through. Following Sexy Beast and Birth, Jonathan Glazer’s third feature confirms him as one of the best directors we have. I am still mulling it over, and will have to see it again, but here are a few thoughts:

Looking over some of the critical response, I have noticed Kubrick’s name often invoked, in a non-specific way. Which seems odd to me. A technique Glazer used for some scenes was to shoot random passersby with hidden cameras. Nothing could be further from the obsessive control that Kubrick exercised in his film-making. You may find a similarity in the chilliness of the movie, but I think the end effect is quite different. Under the Skin presents us our world viewed through an alien lens, and it is a cold view. But what it shows us is human vulnerability at a very basic level, and it elicits a kind of stunned compassion. We know essentially nothing of any of the characters in the movie, the humans or the non-human protagonist (even to call her that seems to go too far). We can see them only superficially. But we know there is something under the skin. The distance of our view is what frees us to compassion; with character obscure sheer being shines forth. Whereas Kubrick’s characters are all surface, all performance. They are purely cinematic, have no being, and elicit no compassion. That is Kubrick’s coldness.

In its use of non-actors Under the Skin can be associated with Italian neo-realism and the great Iranian tradition of the past few decades. Though it might not appear so at first glance, I think there are fruitful connections to pursue there.

Part of the sense of human (and pseudo-human) vulnerability the film creates is due to the many scenes of nakedness (not nudity).  A naked man with an erection has never been portrayed so poignantly, and so perhaps as truly, as here. And anybody eager to see Scarlett Johansson naked will get that, but maybe not quite the way they wanted.

Few films have used special effects as well as this one, with elegance, simplicity, mystery, and a light touch. They don’t intrude into the world created by the movie, they just extend it. The best complement I could give: they are almost as weird as reality.

There are many beautiful shots in Under the Skin, but I could not help thinking they would more beautiful if they had been shot on film. It is not that the digital aesthetic isn’t well used — and the hidden-camera scenes could only be shot with video — just that I can’t see as much beauty in it. Or at least I don’t think I can.

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