Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 13, 2014 10:22 am 
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Alien temptress tours Scotland in a van

The darkness, dampness, and doom of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin sometimes rise to a level of transcendental beauty. This is a film that’s a strange blend of the commonplace and the unique. It’s a sci-fi/fantasy/horror tale of an alien that comes to earth (that old saw), taking the form of a pretty young woman (Scarlett Johansson, with raven-dyed tresses) to tempt men to a sort of watery doom, like a kind of Homeric monster. Why? She doesn’t rack up that many victims. Of all the pointless projects of a superior civilization this may be the most lame.

In place of explanations Glazer substitutes an intense, palpable immediacy of sound and image. And this is good, so good that the online critic Mike D’Angelo, writing from Toronto, for a while thought Under the Skin was going to turn out to be one of his favorite films of all time, and he still wound up, even disappointed, rating it near the top of his many festival viewings last year. But it doesn’t sustain its interest to the end, even though the final scenes, staged in a Scottish forest, seem, in their way, still quite memorable: everything is done with a fresh eye. An American shooting a sci-fi movie in Scotland in itself is pretty unusual. But keen observation isn’t supported by thoroughness of conception in Walter Campbell's loose and pared-down adaptation of Michel Faber's novel.

Our alien, equipped with an English accent, is aided by a uniformed motorcyclist, hovering mostly out of sight, like one of Cocteau’s avenging angels, who at the outset brings her the body of a woman victim simply to don her clothing. Then she goes to a mall in Edinburgh – a once handsome city now grown teeming, dim, and depressing – to acquire a brighter top, taller boots, and a sleazy faux-fur jacket like that worn by Giulietta Massina in Nights of Cabiria. Henceforth she embarks on her routine, driving a van around town and luring men by asking directions somewhere random, then inviting them to climb in and accompany her to a deserted house where they follow her, shedding clothes, into a shimmering black abyss. As time goes on they begin shrinking to large dried, twisted crispy bits. Again though, why?

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure has a similar theme of a killer who brings death to victims without touching them. But Cure is more haunting and creepier. This must be in part surely because its killer isn’t from outer space, just an ordinary innocuous-seeming young man. It’s also inevitable to think of Nicholas Roeg’s classic The Man Who Fell to Earth, which of course found a more genuinely alien-seeming actor in the person of David Bowie and endowed his character, in a rich variety of scenes, with a memorable sympathy and a cosmic loneliness. Under the Skin misses out on these qualities. It’s hard not to see Johansson’s character as just a mean bitch who kills men. She does suffer from the plight of the alien’s limited shelf-life as a pseudo-earthling, however. In time she begins to seem desperate and confused – though it’s not always certain it’s not just the movie itself that’s frazzled– and in a great rush to achieve something that doesn’t get achieved.

She gets distracted with pity when she picks up an elephant man in a hoodie on his way to shop at Tesco’s (the authentically disfigured Adam Pearson) a 27-year-old with an adolescent’s body and a swollen, hideously deformed head. “You have beautiful hands,” she tells him; and this time the victim walks out of his shimmering black doom.

Then she begins to get lost in the increasingly wet, sepulchral and inhospitable environment of Scotland in winter. Rowdy youths mob her van. A man in a big forest park tries to rape her. Glazer continues to use ordinary locations in ways that make them weird. Throughout Skin depicts a sometimes glistening and ugly-beautiful world of rain, mud and muck. Its Scotland takes us to a nether world of temptation and doom that teasingly keeps more sympathetic viewers peering at the screen in search of a payoff that never comes. In the end there just isn’t enough here, not enough context, not enough variety of incident, not a discernible progression or purpose. Scarlett deserves credit for trying, for good sportsmanship, riding through so much dampness and chill (with only one warm electric fire ever in sight) and such a long trip to nowhere, and always looking fresh. But underneath her there’s just another, thinner girl. Still, for connoisseurs of cinematic oddity this is another notch in the collection, one literally dripping with atmosphere, and it's likely to stand as one of the most original wide releases of the year.

Under the Skin, 108 mins., debuted at Telluride, showing at other festivals, US theatrical release starting 4 April 2014.

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