Thursday, May 01, 2014

Alien Skin

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

Under the Skin (2013, directed by Jonathan Glazer) is one of the most distressing horror movies I've seen in a good long while. It's a film that frustrates me, because it creates images that overturn the power dynamics of the horror movie and then reasserts them in the end. It's visionary. It's blank-faced and mundane. It's transgressive. It's retrograde. It's the goddamnedest thing.

The plot of the film finds an alien woman wandering around Scotland picking up men and murdering them for inscrutable reasons. Over the course of her predations, she begins to sympathize with the men she murders. She begins to wonder at the possibilities of the body she inhabits. It becomes harder for her to do what she must. When she picks up a man deformed by tumors on his face, she finds herself intrigued by how he lives. She lets him live, against the will of the others of her kind. She flees into the countryside, unsure of how to continue. She makes uncomfortable discoveries about her body and how it might have sex with the men of this world. Now a woman alone, she finds herself in the position of prey rather than as predator.

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

At its most obvious, this is a serial killer movie. Our unnamed anti-heroine drives around in a windowless van picking up victims, taking them back to her desolate apartment and murdering them. This is a clever inversion. Most serial killers are men. In this film, the killer is Scarlett Johansson, which loads the deck. Sex is death in this film, and the filmmakers have incarnated it in the person of one of the contemporary cinema's most glamourous movie stars, the object of many an onanistic schoolboy fantasy. The ultimate honey trap? The movie itself might be considered in the same light, given that it promises Johansson's numerous nude scenes as a lure into an inscrutable art film. Moreover, the movie's examination of the physicality of Johansson's character tends to de-glamourize her.

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

This is the artiest example of the new crop of kitchen sink horror movies coming from the UK. In its technique, it sometimes resembles Kairostami more than it resembles any of its closest cinematic relatives. Many of the encounters with random men were exactly that: the filmmakers hid a camera in the van and watched as Johansson selected and chatted-up random men on the streets of Glasgow. At other times, it indulges in abstraction a la the stargate sequence from 2001. It opens with such a scene, even down to the lighted chamber where the protagonist strips a hitchhiker (also Johansson) of her clothes and, presumably, her skin. It mates its imagery with a disorienting soundscape. This film would make a terrific double feature with Berberian Sound Studio, given that both of them rely heavily on their sound design for their effects. Most of the dialogue here is unintelligible--Glaswegians having the most impenetrable accents in the English language. but that's of a piece. It becomes another part of the sonic texture of the film. The dialogue doesn't really matter anyway.

This film reminds me a bit of stories by Alice Sheldon, who wrote about alien sex and human sex under the name of James Tiptree, Jr. Sheldon smuggled disturbing ideas about how men and women relate to each other under the cover of night into her science fiction. I could see this film sitting next to "Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death," or "The Screwfly Solution" on my bookshelf. Many of her stories are about the alienating effects of being a woman, as if one is an alien among earthlings by dint of having a different physiology that grants one less power in the world. Tiptree's feminism is a nihilistic feminism, often ending in death for the individual, for the species, for the entire world. There's some of that in Under the Skin. While Johansson's character may be the prime mover in this film's plot, and while the film might flip the script on the power dynamics of movie monsters, she's very much trapped in a patriarchy. Her accomplices--presumably other aliens--are all male. When she's stripped of their protection at the end of the film, she becomes a victim herself. On a more personal level, there's a certain horror of self-discovery in the later scenes of the film, too. When an attempt at intercourse with a human man fails, she's quick to grab a hand mirror to examine her parts to see what's wrong with them. Again, this is loaded imagery given the actress, but it's a scene that's likely familiar to many women who are uncomfortable in their own skins.

Adam Pearson and Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

The imagery in this film varies from the brutally mundane to the elegantly abstract. The scenes of what Johansson's character does to men once she gets them back to her flat are as formalized as Noh theater. Her victims enter a yonic darkness chasing after Johansson as she peels off her clothes. Once naked, they themselves sink into that darkness as she walks across it. This is mysterious the first time we see it. The next time we see it, we see it from the point of view of the victim, who encounters the previous victim in a kind of floating world, his skin sucked empty of flesh and bone. This is no less mysterious. Is this the process by which the pods impersonate humans? Maybe. It's a poetic and horrifying scene. The scenes that take place outside of this context are more transgressive. The scene where Johansson encounters a man on a beach while a family swims in dangerous surf is profoundly alarming: the casual way she bashes in his head after he fails to save a drowning woman, the baby sitting on the beach as its parents are sucked into a rip tide, the ultimate disposition of that baby as a news item. This is all filmed with a blank-faced naturalism. Perhaps the most transgressive scene in the movie finds Johansson's character chatting up a man deformed by facial tumors. The actor, Adam Pearson, isn't wearing prosthetics. He really lives with that condition. In this, the film is a spiritual inheritor of Freaks. The pairing of the movie-star beauty of Scarlett Johansson with this man tends to shame an audience who might not think of such a person as a person, chock full of all the longings and sexual desires of every other human being. I found this sequence to be beautiful and alarming, given what Johansson's character does with the men she picks up. The movie is cruel with this, because it chooses to let the audience off the hook with the murder sequence, only to murder this man later in the film.

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

The way this turns into a rape narrative at the end bothers me a lot, given the way it has studiously flipped the script on men and women in its first two acts. It's a film where its denouement seems an apology for its satire. As if saying: this is how things really are; how silly of us to think otherwise. This sequence hit me hard personally, too, because like many women, I sometimes feel like an impostor, and many women like me suffer horrible violence because kyriarchy views us as impostors. In the parlance of this film, Johansson's character is a deceiver and her fate reflects a punishment for deceit. If one doesn't conform to the image of women as a fuckdoll for men or, worse, if one misrepresents one's image in a way that men misinterpret, likely as not, one will burn. Literally.

So. A disquieting image to take away with you as the credits roll, and a lot of conflicting emotions to unpack. It's a hard film to like, but it's a hard film to shake off, too. That means something.

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1 comment:

Mace Hane said...

Wonderful review.
Loved every moment of this film, especially it's different spaces and thought Scarlett was incredible.
Yes, it stayed with me (and to an extent still does) after the viewing to a degree that surprised me.
Many thanks.