Friday, 4 April 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013) is a film that divides opinion. When friends heard that I intended to go and see it they, variously, told me that it was: “A breakthrough in cinema” “The most disturbing film ever” “Misogynistic” “Remeniscent of Kubrick” and “Unimaginably boring”. Could all these descriptions be true?

Phoenix Square in Leicester was showing it yesterday, so I went along to find out.

Under the Skin is a film about... Well, here I run into my first problem. Nothing is obvious. Even by the end, I couldn’t tell you definitively what the story is. We watch as Scarlett Johansson, clothed in a stolen identity, drives around Glasgow at night. In turn, she watches the people on the streets around her. Sometimes she stops and talks to one of them. Sometimes she offers a lift. And all the time, we, the audience, are playing detective, trying to find a story behind these apparently random interactions.

Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin (2013)
Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
Anyone who has seen the trailer will already know that a disturbing fate awaits a man, enticed by her sexuality to enter a surreal black, featureless lair. Then we are back to driving around and watching.

The shots are cut long, giving the film a deliberately slow pace. The camera lingers over everything. And without a clear thread of story to hold onto, the pace feels doubly slow. For many people, it has clearly crossed the fine line that separates ‘enigmatic’ from ‘boring’. And yes, I can see that point of view.

Several things kept me on the enigmatic side of the line. First and foremost was Scarlett Johansson’s presence. Her face is endlessly fascinating in passivity. And her abrupt switches to other modes of expression were disturbing and entirely believable. I hope her performance is not overlooked when the awards season comes around again.

The second reason the film had me hooked were the occasional surreal scenes, which seemed to take place in another reality. They were visually extraordinary. I have not read the book, but it would be very interesting to know what these are the visual representation of in prose. They are certainly a triumph in film making and it is in them that the Kubrick comparison felt most meaningful.

The third reason I stayed with the film was the naturalistic acting style, at least part of which came from hidden camera filming of ordinary people going about their lives. This dissolving of the wall between documentary and fiction did much to heighten the disturbing effect of the film overall. When something bad happens, it feels as if we are watching reality.

I have to address the suggestion of misogyny, which almost put me off going to see the film. I can understand that a story about a woman stalking male victims might be seen as such. But I did not take it that way. For me the character played by Johansson, though presenting female sexuality, was in fact alien from the concept herself. Thus, ironically, her true character seemed androgynous.

However an interaction between a male and a female character at the end of the film – which I can’t describe because it would be a significant spoiler – did leave me very uneasy in this respect. It left issues unresolved – which I think was the intention of the film makers, but which I can imagine it receiving criticism for. It is a fine judgement, but I think that sequence was justified by the story.

Under the Skin is not a film for everyone. Hurrah for that! The astronomical cost of film making naturally pushes producers to try to satisfy the largest possible audience. That isn't a complaint. It is just economic fact. But the net effect of a million economically necessary decisions is to make the film industry institutionally conservative and risk averse.

Here we have a notable exception. Congratulations to all the funders for getting behind it. And to Scarlett Johansson for taking the risk.

Yes, Under the Skin gets a thumbs up from me. But it leaves me with a question - are a strong story thread and this kind of quality mutually exclusive? In other words - good as it was, could this film have been better?

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