About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Getting "Under The Skin"

     Already being praised and compared to the likes of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science fiction masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jonathan Glazer's third feature film Under The Skin (2014) is indeed a superb work, but a very different kind of experience.  Where as 2001 stands as a monolith within the film canon as a result of its grandeur and epic scale, Under The Skin might be more akin to Ingmar Bergman's groundbreaking Persona (1966) as an achievement in narrative filmmaking.  Defying conventional genre expectations (both visually and narratively), Glazer has made a film that - similar to Persona - doesn't give all the answers to its audience and challenges the viewer with recognizing that they're watching a film.  
     As the film opens, we see what may be a distant star approaching.  A light in a dark void shines towards the camera, and then a circular object - perhaps a planet - begins to obstruct the light.  Within the circular planet-like objects, the light appears to be refracting - are we watching a lens being formed on a camera or a film projector?  Eventually, several of these dark circles pass in front of the light source until the light has been fully blocked.  Scarlett Johansson's voice begins to gradually fade in from off screen as she begins to train her tongue to be familiar with speaking - presumably, for the first time.  Her sounds gradually begin to get more complex until the sounds finally form a word that resembles the sound of the word "film".  Having the word "film" as the first official spoken word within the movie asks the audience to be aware of the filmic nature of Under The Skin from the very beginning as vaguely discernible images that could be galaxies, camera lenses, or a human eye transform and fluctuate during the course of the first three minutes.  Eventually the image becomes something truly definitive - a human eye in extreme close-up.  
     Within the mind's eye, galaxies can be seen, and with the Kino Eye life can be observed and preserved in cinema.  Soviet documentary filmmaker and cinema pioneer Dziga Vertov coined the term "Kino-glaz" or "Cine Eye" to express man's connection with the motion picture camera.  The concept of the Kino Eye flows throughout this film as an outsider, Scarlett Johansson's unnamed character, tries to make her way through an unfamiliar landscape.  At one point in Under The Skin, the narrative seems to vanish as the film begins to focus on real people in the streets of Scotland for several minutes before cutting to a close-up of an eye and eventually overlapping all of the documentary-like footage that was just shown over an image of Johansson driving to express that we (the audience) were seeing the world through Johansson's eyes (or the filmmaker's).  
     Furthering the idea of the Kino Eye in Under The Skin is a sense of verisimilitude throughout the course of the film.  With the exception of the highly controlled opening scenes and the more abstract sequences that occur sporadically throughout the course of the film, the camera is generally hand-held giving a cinéma-vérité air to the subjects on screen.  Simply by using uninterrupted long-takes in real locations, the synthesis of editing and cinematography makes the film feel as though it is actually happening.  In the vein of an Abbas Kiarostami film like Taste of Cherry (1996), much of the film takes place within the confines of a car observing an often silent protagonist.  Reminiscent of the traffic sequence in Andrei Tarkovsky's science fiction epic Solaris (1972), the camera looks forward at the real world and captures all of its lackluster flaws that differ from the pre-conceived notion of what a sci-fi film should be.  While driving through Scotland, Johansson tries to coerce willing men into her vehicle so that she may trap them in her web of sex and lies.  That we are in Scotland at all isn't fully apparent until the cast of non-actors begin speaking - their accents express the local patterns of speech, and Johansson takes it all in with ulterior motives.  
     The moments of abstraction, specifically Glazer's highly stylized depiction of Johansson capturing her seduced prey is stunning.  Photographed in precise dolly movements against a solid black backdrop, the men follow after Johansson leaving a trail of clothes behind them but gradually find that they are sinking into a black liquid in the floor.  These sequences occasionally resemble the body studies that the early cinema pioneer Eadweard Muybridge conducted in the late 1800s which observed people walking and doing normal activities while being photographed at high frame rates to create the illusion of motion ("motion pictures").  Similar to Muybridge's body studies, Glazer photographs Johansson and her prey in a full-body wide in profile as she walks seductively in reverse as the seduced slowly wade into a mysterious black liquid until they are completely submerged.
     Adding to the ambiguity and mystery of this film on a narrative level is the concept of duality.  Within the first ten minutes of Under The Skin, there is a scene that depicts Scarlett Johansson standing beside another version of herself against a blinding white backdrop (a stark contrast to the pitch black aesthetic of the seduction sequences).  Like something out of Persona, the line between who is who is unclear as one of the Johanssons appears to be dead, yet in a Cries And Whispers-esque moment a tear rolls down the cheek of the "lifeless" Johansson after it has been undressed and the two have officially switched places.  Something is amiss with the Johansson character from the beginning, but Glazer doesn't allow for the audience to be privy to the reason why or her true function in a traditional narrative sense.  Instead, the film becomes more about human empathy - which comes quite naturally as the film is so grounded in the real world.  
     Exploring the nature of the human soul and the place that love has within sexual relations is a key theme, and Under The Skin is a much more theme-driven film than plot-driven.  The plot is never addressed - there is no "call to adventure".  We do, however, experience change within the soul of our protagonist as she discovers her own nature and the nature of those around her.
     Under The Skin is not a traditional science fiction film, but it asks big questions that bring the film to the heart of the genre that it stylistically rebels against.  To propel those big questions, the film is aware of its own cinematic nature and uses that knowledge to great effect to turn the lens onto the audience as we are asked to fill in the blanks and make meaning of the content on screen.  Though Under The Skin lacks the monumental surface of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky's Solaris, it is an important contemporary work as it challenges the conventions of narrative form and the boundaries of cinematic aesthetic.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic review. I too saw the similarities with Tarkovsky's Solaris, but more in the nature of the innocence and unknowing of the Johansen character compared to Kris and the living memories of his dead wife

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