October 19th, 2014


The Bottom Layer of Motive is Black

Is what's known as karmic retribution a form of justice? Do murderers and rapists deserve to be assaulted in the same way that they assaulted others? That's a question posed in a very cold way by 2013's Under the Skin, a movie about an alien living among humans. It features a brilliant and subtle performance from Scarlett Johansson and beautiful filmmaking by Jonathan Glazer evocative of the sense of burden imposed by basic needs in a cold world. It's a fascinating and remarkable film.

Vittorio De Sica cast a non-actor in the lead role of his 1948 Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves and the neorealists were fond of using non-professional actors. Under the Skin, like Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy films, goes another step by having real people unwittingly interact with a fictional character. Scarlett Johansson, in the role of an alien being, drove around Scotland in a plain white van and picked up men.

A lot of critics have called these segments dull, which I find rather hard to understand, but perhaps many of them were unaware that these were unscripted situations. It's also possible critics who disliked the scenes were unable to understand people speaking with thick Scottish accents. I've heard there are people who can't even understand Peter Capaldi on Doctor Who and his accent is pretty mild--the accents in Under the Skin are much more colloquial. Still, I didn't have real difficulty but your mileage may vary.

After the initial interaction, the men were told about the film and invited to participate in a scripted scene where they strip naked in a completely black room, following a slowly stripping Johansson.

I wonder if the fact that so many random guys on the street agreed to be filmed not only naked but with full erections in any way inspired Johansson to do nude scenes for the film, her first, I think. As the title suggests, though, the point is what's under the skin and the great thing about Johansson's performance is how she conveys that sense of someone basically wearing a Scarlett Johansson suit.

She puts on an act for the guys but when she's alone there's a kind of far away blankness in her eyes. When she has facial expressions, they're sort of numb and abrupt, like an animatronic puppet face.

The guys she seduces start out walking towards her but then slowly sink into a black liquid. They keep their eyes fixed on her as though they're unaware of sinking.

These scenes compel the viewer not to take them completely literally, the lack of awareness in the victims of the strangeness of their environment makes the sinking seem like a metaphor for their lusts driving them forward even through danger. Yet, of course, something strange really is happening to them.

The alien woman does some really cruel things. In the course of her adventures, we see her abandon a baby on the beach to death and a scene where she seduces a man with neurofibromatosis--real, of course, not prosthetics--is sort of heartbreaking.

Then, when she becomes lost in fog on a lonely highway, the tables are turned as she finds herself at the mercy of strange men. We're forced to question our sympathies. As horrible as she was to the people in the first part of the film, do we feel bad for her now that she's the one in similar danger? I did. You could say the deck is a little stacked, of course--even with an alien inside her, Johansson is gorgeous. There's also an innocence in the alien's crimes, as though she's acting from need. In this way, she really feels like a Doctor Who alien and it actually wouldn't have been strange to have the Doctor show up and ask these questions--are you preying on humans because you require them for sustenance? Are you aware your actions are hurting other sentient beings?

It seems likely the answer to the latter question is "yes" since the alien is able to mimic human behaviour so convincingly. As for the former question, in one scene she attempts to eat some cake in a restaurant but vomits it up, reminiscent of the sort of vampire in David Cronenberg's Rabid who finds herself forced to prey on men when she's unable to digest normal food.

But these reasons for the alien's behaviour end up highlighting the ambiguity of the scales of justice and emphasising the complexity of questions about criminal motive and punishment.

And it's well shot--in the latter portion of the film, Glazer does an excellent job of creating shots that both take advantage of Scotland's natural beauty and also speak to the story and themes. I particularly loved this shot of Johansson trying to hide among some felled trees which form angled lines all drawing the eye to her. And the fact that they've been cut down, living things killed to serve men, emphasises the broader themes at work.

By the way, between now and Halloween I'm going to be watching a horror movie every night. I have a good pile ready to go but I'd be happy to receive more recommendations.

Twitter Sonnet #677

Television corn pukes from the bulged glass.
Distant suns gargle on nuclear cheese.
Inflatable muscles quietly pass.
Clever captured clogs grow roots to the knees.
Stones on leashes stay put in the closed park.
Piles of absent leaves bury the tick.
Silent clocks burrow from beach sand at dark.
Marble eyes perform a shallow mind trick.
Braces belong to the eyes under hood.
Swarming fluorescent heavens slowly bake.
Clashing trumpets are sooner understood.
Ceiling arms and fingers are on the take.
Justice and torn costumes were lost in fog.
Many fires are known to the wise log.