October 19, 2017

Posted April 12, 2014 by D. K. Holm

Last week it was Captain America: The Winter Soldier; this week it’s Under the Skin. But this week’s new Scarlett Johansson film may prove less likely to satisfy her fans.

Captain America 2 is tightly hewn to its predecessor, with inflections of the 1970s American cinema of paranoia attached, and with Ms. Johansson engaged in ’30s style repartee with the Captain. She is sleekly suited up, physically competent and graceful: in a word, hot, as Anthony Lane would agree. In Under the Skin, we see a lot of that skin, but in an art-house context that will probably put off most average Johansson-stalking viewers.

Under the Skin is the third feature film by Jonathan Glazer, after the crime film soleil Sexy Beast and the intellectual horror film Birth. One can see from this progression that Mr. Glazer has been moving steadily towards a higher form of narrative that is less concerned with entertaining then with posing puzzles that perhaps even he cannot elucidate. The vigorous masculine braggadocio of Sexy Beast evolved into the mysteries of family and genetics in Birth, set within a somber version of Woody Allen country in Manhattan. Skin offers even less contextualization. It is an ambitious, commanding demanding film that asks its audience to be as smart as itself, but given this day and age, Mr. Glaser’s request may be futile.

Though based on a novel by Michel Faber, the film under Mr. Glazer’s supervision has been stripped away all explanatory devices in order to tell his story visually and with sounds and music. Though on the surface Skin may seem cold, in fact the film is highly emotional. Ms. Johansson appears early in the narrative as an “alien” replacement for a predecessor gone bad; we only learn the reason for her predecessor’s tears at the end of the film, another example of Mr. Glazer’s withholding the narrative from the viewer until the whole thing is complete. Her task is hunting human beings as delicacies for some unnamed alien elites. The first half of the film follows Ms. Johansson as she adapts to her role as a somewhat slutty looking Scottish wayfarer looking for unattached males to lure to her spider’s nest. Halfway through the film, however, she encounters one victim who somehow affects her in an unexpected, even human way. After that she goes off the reservation and in turn becomes the prey, hunted by her handlers who ride the countryside on motorcycles, as well as ┬áby a few earthly males, culminating in an encounter with a logger-rapist in the woods. At this point, the viewer is shown the “real” entity beneath the skin, who so shocks the rapist that he takes even more extreme measures.

Mr. Glazer is attempting something powerful and unusual in cinema, a visually-aurally told story that has already attracted comparisons to Kubrick (though Malick may be in there too). The result is an affecting meditation on what it means to be human, and one’s role in a harsh human hierarchy. Unfortunately it seems that most viewers demand much more in the way of sign posts and announcements. Other filmmakers are happy to provide pop-up video versions of cinematic narrative, but Mr. Glazer wants to strip the film down to a crystalline series of images, Thoughts, and emotions. It’s disheartening to live in a culture in which on the one hand so many pundits decry the intellectual acuity and degradation of popular culture and international cinema only to turn up their Philistine noses when something truly interesting and artistic comes along. But one thing is sure: Mr. Glazer’s film is so difficult and penetrating that he has still managed to get under their skin.