Friday, June 13, 2014

Under The Skin: a review

What do I make of Under The Skin? Hm.

To be clear at the outset, I have respect for any film that has so much respect for the intelligence of its viewers, that trusts them with so much, that stretches the limits of conventional cinematic practice to accomplish something new, particularly in these rather uninspiring cinematic times. It's a brave and confident film; I'm glad I saw it, and found it interesting enough on first viewing. But on a personal level - as well as a political one - I'm not sure I liked it, and don't know that I want or need to see it again.
That's not just because the film is mildly frustrating to watch. True, its gimmick seems to be to keep you so in the dark about what the true nature of proceedings is that you are compelled to keep watching. It keeps getting weirder and weirder, and you hold on for dear life waiting for it all to make sense. I'm not sure it ever does; it definitely has an ending, but that ending doesn't explain three-quarters of what has been going on. That isn't really a complaint so much as it is an observation, however, because there seems to be a method at work: the film's puzzling aspects on a mere plot level ("what's with the scene where _________?") kind of force you, if you're going to make sense of it, to tackle it on a thematic level. You can't make sense of what happens without thinking about what it all means. I'm not sure, however, that I like it all that much on that level, either.
Without spoiling anything, on the level of story, Under The Skin appears to be about aliens who come to earth - Glasgow, in specific - on some sort of harvesting mission. This is shown in scenes that are visually stunning but which raise more questions than they answer. There are male aliens and a female alien, or at least they take these forms to get the job done; the female alien is played by Scarlett Johansson, and her job is sort of to be the "bait" for horny men. What the exact relationship of the aliens is is unclear - who is the boss? who is the employee? to whom do they all ultimately answer? ...but it is clear that their dynamic changes at a certain point. Why, exactly, is also uncertain, but it seems to revolve around a remarkable scene with a disfigured man, played by an actor named Adam Pearson, whom you can read about here.
The film is not, of course, really about aliens; no movies about aliens are, ever. Aliens - like monsters, ghosts, zombies, what-have-you, are stand ins, proxies, ciphers for aspects of the human experience, the equivalent of deities or mythic monsters or so forth; all stories told by humans get at human truths - since we can't really enter a non-human perspective without humanizing it, finding ourselves in it, expressing ourselves through it.

Spoilers follow. I discourage reading further if you have not seen Under The Skin; much of what is worthwhile about it lies in having to work things out for yourself.

So here: the film as I read it is about innocence and experience, and the cost of both. It's about compassion and its lack. When it begins, it is about a narcissist, a predatory female who uses up men and, in a sort of naive state, never thinks about them, just discards them and goes looking for the next one. But one day she is so moved by an encounter with one man that it forces her to reconsider what she has been doing; prompted by his disfigurements, she looks long into the mirror, awakens to her tenuous humanity and rejects her former role. This could be seen as figuring the experiences of anyone who undergoes a profound change in their lives - I mean, we are all "alien" under the skin, after all, trying to learn how to work our flesh-suits, trying to find our way in the world in which we find ourselves; sometimes we discover we have been doing things in fundamentally wrong ways, and set off uncertainly in new directions.
Our protagonist's act of reconsidering has both profound personal and political ramifications. Once she discovers the quality of compassion, she finds herself in wonder of her experience, loses herself in it. And she thus becomes vulnerable; because her relationship with her "co-workers" on the bikes, who could with a bit of stretching be seen as representing patriarchy or capitalism or what-have-you - changes. They aren't happy with her, it seems. Without the security of her old role to resort to, she finds the tables get turned.
Real spoilers, now: the man whom she encounters in the woods, who ultimately attempts to rape her and kill her... is her encountering him some sort of "justice?" The former predator, in rejecting her role, becomes prey to a different sort of predator? That's where I start to have doubts about the content of this film. If this whole alien conceit were not used, I ask myself: if the film were straight-up about a cold sexy narcissistic bitch who uses men left and right, who suddenly has a change of heart, and then gets is raped and murdered - which provides us what we need for closure, since there is presumably some sort of "justice" (or at least irony in it), would we not see this film as a misogynist text? The woman is BURNED ALIVE at the end of the movie, when the rapist discovers that she is not human, for chrissakes. What are the politics of that, exactly? (Or of the woman-as-alien; it's like some female-bashing Burroughs rant).

To the extent that the film seems to be asking us to identify with the female throughout, and to ask questions about sex and seduction "the way things are now," and consider that they might be different, I suppose there is also an argument to be made for saying that the film is some sort of a feminist text; I will let someone else make that argument, however. When movies appear that use a great deal of formal complexity and force their audience to struggle to make sense of just what the story is, nevermind what it means, I tend to wonder if they're HIDING something, if their complexity might just serve to slip something reactionary, politically unspeakable, or at least deeply suspect past their audience. Gaspar Noe's Irreversible is one great example of that; Under The Skin may be another, interesting and unique as it may be.

The odd beautiful and touching image aside, I don't think I care much for (or about) this film.

Edit to add: I think I really like the perspective of this (female) film reviewer... It's not that her perspective is the only one possible, but man did it need to be said...

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