Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Under the Skin

Despite the fact that I have no time (because I'm dancing too much), I couldn't not participate in this week's episode of Hit Me..., since I'm pretty sure it was me (right here) who inspired Nathaniel to choose Jonathan Glazer's uniquely unsettling mindfuck Under the Skin for the series. It's a film that has refused to leave my mind ever since I saw it in April (with my man, who declared it even worse than "that one about the creation of the universe", referring to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which I dragged him to and lost movie-choosing privileges for a month as a result). I'm not sure if it's a great film or not, but it's certainly unforgettable, and probably the first film I've seen in a theater that can honestly call itself a true "art film".

It's a simple enough film to describe - Scarlett Johansson is a presumably-alien something in a human body who picks up Scottish men to do... something... to them, who slowly but surely becomes more and more intrigued by humanity, even as she is seemingly destroying it. But Under the Skin is so much more than that description, and each time I return to it in my memory, it becomes something different, ever shape-shifting into a completely different film although all its elements remain the same. The film defies categorization in a way entirely unlike anything else I've seen. Is it a parable of female empowerment? A moody science fiction noodle? A fable of "the other"? It is none of these, all of these, and more. On this most recent viewing, it became an existential horror film, the scariest film of the decade. Jean-Paul Sartre, of the "hell is other people" play No Exit, would have loved it.

But, just as when I first saw it in that darkened cinema (absolutely the ideal way to see Under the Skin, and I am so glad I did), what hit me hardest was the film's unbearably, uncomfortably creepy sound design. I will hear the strings of composer Mica Levi's stunning score (which, in a perfect world, would win every award in the known universe) in my nightmares for decades to come. The cinematography is entirely on point (thank you Daniel Landin!), but it's that damn score that really got under my skin... Worse than nails on a chalkboard, every beat of it makes me want to curl into myself, to somehow go beyond the fetal position until I am literally just a ball of humanity.

The images often help with this feeling, though. The opening sequence perfectly sets the mood (and caused more than one person at my screening to walk out), almost completely inscrutable in its presentation of circles and dots converging and and coalescing eventually into a giant eye. It never lets up from that moment on, but by far the most viscerally terrifying sequence (if not the most horrific) is when we see what actually happens to Scarlett's victims. It begins in the above image when her most recent victim reaches out to touch the previous one, and something just at the edge of the frame is not quite right - the skin of a young man shouldn't wrinkle like that, should it? And then, we see it all ripple away, in a simple, perfectly framed and lit shot.

What is left of this man? Just his skin, the rest of him having been drained away, stolen somehow by the inky black void this seductive alien woman led him to. What does it all mean, what does it symbolize? We could debate for hours, days even. But this shot gets at the deepest fear of all human beings, one that our alien protagonist comes to feel all too well by the end of her journey: What makes us human? What is under our skin?

The answer, as posed by this shot? The most frightening idea of all:


BUT, the shot is held for so long that it stops being grotesque and starts becoming beautiful. It hits that meeting place of horror and beauty known as the sublime, and hits it hard. It's also held long enough to give you space to think, to let your mind wander (there are many such moments in Under the Skin, and they're quite possibly the film's greatest strength). Watching this dancing ribbon human skin I started thinking about death, about nothingness - can death, can the very lack of life, something we normally think of as something to hide from sight, be beautiful? I'm not sure, but in this film (here in this shot and again at the very end), director Jonathan Glazer comes up with a pretty good piece of visual evidence that it might be.