Monday, 15 September 2014

Review of Under The Skin (2013)

What is it that makes us human?

I do not mean in a specific sense, but rather in a more general one. What aspect is it, definable or not, that makes us as a species different from the apes, or the dolphins, or perhaps some as-yet undiscovered race lurking out there. I ask this question because Jonathan Glazer's "Under The Skin" has made me consider it. It is a film about an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, who has come to earth to lure in men and do... Something, we are never quite sure, although it involves reducing them to sacks of skin. Where she has come from, why she is doing this, and what purpose it is serving, are irrelevant. She is both an alien, and alien.

Her other-ness is constantly made an example of. Early on we see her in a shopping centre, buying clothes, trying to fit in. But her face is distant and cold, and there is no doubt that she's going through the motions; how her face can go from expressive and friendly when she's talking to someone, to completely blank when she's left alone, is testament to Johansson's frankly stunning performance.

She carries on going through the motions. She sets about picking up men for the job she is doing. But something happens; as the film goes on, she begins to thaw a little. A chance encounter with a man (Adam Pearson) who has severe neurofibromatosis in his face results in her questioning her goals, Soon, she is experimenting with the typically "human" things, such as eating at a restaurant.

I have now described the plot up until about an hour into the film. I do not normally go as far as this, but this is a unique film. It could not be less concerned with the dynamics of story and motivation; it is predominantly metaphor and allegory. It has done a supremely genius thing in taking the trappings of your standard science-fiction story and turning them into an exposé of an entire species. This is not hyperbole; I have not seen a film with a higher command over the biggest (and, I suppose, smallest) fundamentals of existence, perhaps since I watched Three Colours Blue for the first time four years ago.

This is a film that understands us. It understands lust; look at how the men are drawn into Johannson's black room. It understands human empathy; look at how people help Johansson up after she falls down. It understands that the sound of a baby crying can unite all people to distress. It understands what it is like to be lonely, crucial since this is fundamentally a film about the ultimate loner. From the very first shot, which is a completely black screen slowly giving way to a small white speck, I assume earth, the film engages the viewer by showing them a picture of their existence from the outside, peering in.

It is, of course, opaque, maddeningly styled, and "arty" in a way that would make some people roll their eyes. I was not bothered by these things, because there was a higher purpose there. It is a film alive in all the ways that film can be, gently joyous, hitting notes of unrefined beauty in a number of key scenes. The cinematography by Daniel Landin is a marvel, and the editing by Paul Watts deserves a mention because he has taken what I assume were shards of film and composed them into a symphonic delight. All this is overlaid by the haunting, unsettling and distressing score by Mica Levi, which, punctuated by harsh violins and staccato, electronic sounding beats, is a masterpiece in and of itself.

Perhaps the most baffling thing, to me, is how this film was once a book, written by Michel Faber. It embodies the concept of pure cinema so well that to imagine it in another format seems... Well, alien. I am completely unfamiliar with the book, but I would be very interested to read it to see how it handles the themes that this film lays out so poignantly and thoughtfully, without ever quite spelling them out.

It is a masterwork. That it is one of the best films of the year is without doubt. But it is also miraculous, and highlights the power of film at its' most potent, to detail the human condition and allow an insight into us all. I'm fairly sure that's why we invented the arts in the first place. Yes, this is a film that goes that deep.

No comments:

Post a Comment