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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

When I wrote last week that a film needs to be something pretty special for me to go to the cinema on its first week of release, I did not allow for the exception to that rule, i.e. it's a movie that the person I am with wants to see. This was certainly the case here, although I must confess to some curiosity,  given the amount of recent hype this picture has received.. Michael read the source novel by Michel Faber some years ago, which he liked, and wondered how it could possibly be turned into a clear and comprehensible film. I have no doubt that a secondary interest might have been seeing the delectable Scarlett Johansson in her nudest role ever, which might also account for the disproportionate number of men on their own at the matinee performance we attended.

Miss Johansson's jiggly bits apart (actually they are quite solid and not particularly jiggly), what can I tell you about the film? Well, one local reviewer wrote that she "hated, hated, hated" the movie and it is definitely a potential audience splitter. I wouldn't say that I 'hated' it, but I did find it slow, largely incomprehensible, and definitely pretentious. It is the third film from the British director Jonathan Glazer, whose debut movie was the well-thought of "Sexy Beast" in 2000, a film which left me rather indifferent. He followed it up in 2004 with the Nicole Kidman starrer "Birth" which I thought a load of old codswallop. It took him another nine years to make the above dream project and I think that more people will be put off by the movie than will champion it.

It is no spoiler to tell you that Johansson plays an alien dressed in a human body, and a very sexy human body at that. She drives a white van around the thronging streets of Glasgow, picking up as many single men as she can. With a looker like she, it is no mystery that so many are tempted to accept a lift on a journey with no return. She does not, however, want them to satisfy her own sexual desires; rather she is being used as 'bait' or a 'lure' by her alien co-conspirators to acquire human flesh to draw into their alien morass -- or whatever. This bit is as clear as the mud into which her prey are dragged before dissolving into nothingness. For the first hour of the movie, the viewer struggles to understand what the heck is actually going on and we never do discover many whys and wherefores. None of this is helped by the lack of coherent dialogue -- her own lines are few and the thick Scottish brogue of most of her victims really needs subtitling. She is the only 'name' actor in the cast.

One can argue that it is a brave and gutsy performance from Johansson, even if one wonders what in the world made her accept the role. On the surface she looks gorgeous, but she struggles to feel comfortable in the to her 'alien' human skin. She has trouble balancing on two legs, is repulsed when she tries to eat a scrumptious piece of cake, and is shocked at the feeling when she actually attempts human sex -- to the extent that she grabs a mirror to find out what is going on down below. As her dialogue decreases -- it is almost non-existent by the movie's end -- her feelings of humanity marginally increase. Initially she can not empathise with an abandoned baby, but later on she can not bring herself to destroy a deformed man (one of her cohorts takes care of that). She can not understand human kindness, but in the end is destroyed by human unkindness as she flees from a would-be rapist.

Some of the photography in the final section, as she runs through the sodden woods outside the city, is fairly spectacular with weirdly swaying trees and vast expanses of hostile wastelands, and the final revelation, when we are allowed to discover what is actually under the temptress' outer skin is also a nice bit of how-de-do. Unfortunately these do not compensate for the draggy and generally boring cinematography and deadly slow action that has preceded them.

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