Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Under the Skin

WARNING: Plot Details Revealed

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer, is a film which seems almost deliberately designed to divide audiences. This is due partly to its cool, clinical cruelty, and partly to its semi-formless narrative structure. It proceeds with a meandering drift, and even the most dramatic moments are flattened by the camera’s classically uninvolved eye, holding back and watching from the middle distance. The drift of events and encounters occasionally dissipates, the nebulous focus realigning itself and fixing into moments of complete abstraction. The film opens with just such a moment, a striking formal sequence in which the basic visual and linguistic elements of the human perspective coalesce from fragmented circles of light and the rote repetition of phonetics. These are the elements of cinema, of course – light and language, the script learned and reproduced by the actor, possibly adopting a new accent or intonation. The words we half-hear are divorced from any real meaning and reduced to mere sound, language made strange. The eye which stares out at us lets us know that we will be watching what follows from a radically altered viewpoint. The camera’s eye will represent this new vision. It will be part story, part cinematic experiment, for which we will be the subjects.

We are given no explicit cues as to the central premise of the story at the outset, no prefatory written explanation or scene-setting approach of a spaceship. If some of the lights which dazzle us are indeed a craft of some kind, then it is as abstracted as the spaceship in which Kris approaches Solaris in Tarkovsky’s film. Burning arcs of light, blurred with speed, which might have marked the meteor trail of a capsule plunging through the Earth’s atmosphere, are brought into focus and revealed as the swerving passage of a motorcycle along winding nightroads. We are plunged into a world whose nature we are expected to work out for ourselves. We gather that an alien in female form, played by Scarlett Johansson, is trawling the streets of Glasgow in a white van, picking up human meat in a disturbingly literal sense. She is assisted by brutal, swiftly mobile motorcycling enforcer, a more murderously violent incarnation of Death’s outriders in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée.

The dizzying, disorienting sensation caused by the distanced alien viewpoint is perfectly accompanied and amplified by Mica Levi’s score. Levi, the woman behind the hyperkinetically inventive art-pop of Micachu and the Shapes, produced an atmospheric soundtrack for a sonic journey guiding people around the bewildering spaces of the Barbican in London in 2011. This electronic piece transformed the concrete surroundings into a natural paradise of tropical birdsong and running water. The headphone cocooned wanderer experienced a disconnection from their normal experience of this familiar environment similar to the effect created by the film’s deliberate remove. Although in this case, the electronic sounds provided more of a warm, ambient breeze, wafting between the concrete masses and reviving the utopian spirit of late modernist post-war architecture. Levi’s music for Under the Skin is more in line with pre- and post-war modernist tendencies in classical music. Its skittering, scrabbling, stridulently chittering strings (evoking the anthill or insect swarm) are overlaid with the odd, sensually upgliding glissando line – a disconcerting combination. The style is reminiscent of Gyorgy Ligeti, Giacinto Scelsi or parts of George Crumb’s Black Angels quartet (extracts of which were used in The Exorcist). There are also little burbles and squawks of electronic sound, which suggests a coldly calculating machine-like intelligence at work. Modernist composers’ determination to completely dismantle the structure of late romantic music and reconfigure the separate elements into new patterns and forms led to pieces which sounded strange and alien compared with the familiar worlds of well-tempered melody and harmonic development. This strangeness has made them ideal for accompanying the discovery of the new worlds of SF or for expressing the destabilising, disruptive forces of horror. Ligeti, Penderecki and Bartok have all duly been brought into service, and many soundtrack composers have drawn on their soundworlds. The third movement of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta has proved a particularly rich template, and has been directly used in The Shining and the Doctor Who story The Web of Fear. Levi’s score takes its place within this tradition, and does so to great effect.

There is also a disconcerting disjuncture between visual style and formal register throughout the film; abrupt fissures open up between scenes of distanced but largely realistic observations of ordinary life and an ascetic surrealism which leads us into edgeless no-places where boundaries and surfaces are indeterminate and fluid. ‘I’m dreaming’, one character whispers to himself as he walks into such a space, and the alien replies, with soft assurance, ‘yes, you are’. These are voids in which all the cinematic appurtenances of set dressing and digital backdrops, the illusory reproduction of authentic worlds or the creation of new ones shaped from the imagination, are erased. When the men whom Scarlett Johansson’s nameless alien draws into these no-places are gradually submerged beneath the translucent, oily-black surface which she walks over, it’s as if they are sinking into the screen itself, passing out of our vision. The realistic scenes also have a strangeness which derives from their very authenticity. Many of the encounters weren’t staged, but surreptitiously filmed. This extends the cinematic experiment beyond the audience to those on the screen (and those who were filmed but refused consent to appear in the film, or ended up on the cutting room floor). Would it have been better to have a non-star in the lead role? Perhaps, but it would have lessened this extra dimension of cinematic self-referentiality. Because, in a film about the protective and deceptive nature of surface appearances, it’s quite apparent that none of these randomly selected passers-by recognises Scarlett Johansson, the Hollywood movie star, in this relatively de-glamourised guise.

These surreally empty scenes occasionally cross the boundary into hard-edged abstraction, any trace of human presence, recognisable landscape or interior expunged. A linear lava flow of roiling red matter channelled towards a letterbox aperture hints at the conveyor belt transportation of processed human meat (all of which reminds of the alien ‘harvesting’ machines in Nigel Kneale’s 1979 Quatermass conclusion). But this is the most abstracted of gore scenes, presenting us with a rectilinear line of colour rather than a river of blood or steaming heap of guts. The slot towards which it is conveyed expands as we watch until we are confronted with a black screen banded by a single straight line of burning red. Held for a number of seconds, it’s a cinematic abstract expressionism, with a similar refusal of direct representation. It’s one way in which the film attempts to get under the skin, to pass beyond external appearances and search for some numinous quality beyond, some essential human essence – the soul, perhaps.

There are several scenes in which we are faced with a black screen, or one which bleaches out into a searing whiteness. Scarlett Johansson’s blank face becomes blurred in fog, its features reduced to the barest outlines before disappearing altogether. Similarly, we first see her properly within a screen of boundless white light, which threatens to grow brighter and sear away all contrast between her form and the background. As she drives through the night streets of Glasgow, her vigilant, expressionless face morphs with a visual collage of the people she is watching through her windscreen, until she seems to be composed of a billowing mist, suffused with an orange, sodium-lit luminescence. She’s illuminated by a similar light later on, when her body is burnished by the radiance of an old bar heater, making her look like a gilded statue.

This abstraction, the distortion or transformation of the human form into new and strange configurations, its absorption into its surroundings or its total erasure, is a part of the cold emotional tenor of the film. This is another aspect which makes it hugely divisive. It what makes the film have the feel of a psychological experiment at times, like the Voight-Kampff empathy tests in Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and in Blade Runner. It’s as if we were being presented with a series of self-contained scenes of suffering and cruelty and asked ‘how does this make you feel?’ A baby crying in the teeth of the wind, abandoned and helpless on a heavily, roughly pebbled shore as the tempestuous tide relentlessly draws nearer. And this? A deformed, lonely man offered a hint of companionship and affection which we know will be the prelude to his unpleasant death. Now answer the questions on this form which will precisely map your emotional reaction.

The alien perspective is a SF device which, when brought to bear on the ingrained rituals and routines of modern, everyday life and the assumptions which accompany it, makes the familiar seem strange and less solid. That’s certainly the case here when the Scarlett Johansson alien drives or walks around Glasgow, watching a swarm of Celtic fans, mingling with shoppers in a crowded mall, or tracking late night revellers or isolated individuals striding briskly through the street. We share her viewpoint, the van’s screen becoming a secondary cinema screen for significant periods of time.

The alien can also be taken as a metaphor for the outsider, the nonconformist or the feared and despised ‘other’ in general. This aspect becomes increasingly prominent in the latter part of the film, as the alien leaves the hunting ground of Glasgow, with their ‘safe’ houses, abandons the mobile shelter of the van, and sheds the first superficial layer of skin, the fake-fur coat she has donned at the beginning of the story. The SF alien, with all its manifold potential for metaphor and allegory, is largely employed in this context to lend the central character a blank, affectless view of the world, and a fixity of purpose devoid of any empathy or emotional attachment which is akin to a schizophrenic or psychopathic state of mental disorder. Remove the fantastic elements, and this could be a film about a young woman with profound mental health problems.

In this respect, it shares certain parallels with a previous British film with the same title. Carine Adler’s 1987 film Under the Skin starred Samantha Morton as a young woman traumatised by the death of her mother. She suffers a breakdown and embarks on a self-negating trail or casual, emotionless sexual encounters in an attempt to numb her pain. In the current Under the Skin, sex becomes something which cracks the alien apart, in the end stripping off her protective skin in a literalised metaphor. It is seen as a destructive, violating force, a forceful infection of the human into the body beneath the carefully constructed outer carapace.

The removal of emotional affect, combined with the implicit mission to ‘harvest’ human meat (something made a great deal more explicit in Michel Faber’s source novel), bring an almost unbearable cruelty to some scenes. The wailing baby on the beach and the encounter with the unfortunate man whose head is misshapen by a genetic disorder are calculated to cause discomfort and distress, and are deeply upsetting. They work by creating a sense of empathy and pity in the audience which is not remotely reflected in the responses of the aliens, although their human appearance still leads us to expect it. These two are reductive embodiments of the female and male attributes projected as desirable traits in a heavily mediated world of surface appearances and relentless competition: the seductive, sexy woman who can get anything she wants through the unfurling of her charms, and the brutishly strong action man, capable of ruthlessly battering down any obstruction which blocks the path to his goal. Everything beyond these shallow surface identifiers is unknowable to us. These characteristics represent the skin to which the title refers, easily copied and cultivated from the flood of signs assailing the everyday world, presenting us with the idealised forms of perfection and conformity over and over again. In Scarlett Johansson’s case, the skin is represented by the fake fur coat she buys, and the make-up she puts on to create a mask of artificial sensuality. The man’s skin is his armorial biker’s leathers, which accentuate his broad shoulders and puffed out chest and give him an air of permanently poised aggression. You get the sense that there may be no human flesh, real or facsimile, beneath this stiff hide.

The encounter with the deformed man is the central point of the film, fulcrum on which it turns, beginning its descent into disintegration, its departure from the city into the hinterlands. He hides his swollen face beneath the hood of his coat (his own protective hide) and goes out at night to do his shopping. The Johansson alien (and the lack of a name makes it difficult to refer to her as anything else) asks him about his girlfriends, or whether he has any friends at all. This opens up such an unbearable well of loneliness that it appears to affect even her alien consciousness. Perhaps it taps into some universal knowledge of isolation and alienation common to all intelligent, self-aware life – a condition of being which ignites a spark of commonality which can span even the vast gulf which we’ve witnessed dividing these species. She is infected with a viral microbe of pity and compassion which begins to spread. From hereon in, we observe her steady disintegration. This is in part marked by her loss of language, her retreat into dumb incommunicativeness. She becomes increasingly isolated, drifting uncomprehendingly towards the condition of the man whom she took pity on and allowed to live. She becomes self-reflective in an attempt to understand this newly emergent self, becoming mesmerised by her face and body as seen in mirrors, as if she had been unaware of them before.

To go further inward, to get under the new skin of which she is becoming conscious, she heads out into the Scottish wilds. These provide psychological landscapes which are perfectly congruent with her inner states. The loss of language, the erosion of the ability to communicate, is a symptom of overwhelming feelings of bewilderment, loneliness, fear and loss – feelings which are part of the infecting virus of humanity. There is an element of deliberation here, too. The first layer of skin, the fur coat, is shed and the protective womb of the van abandoned. In this formally rigorous film, the hinterlands beyond the city are the location for a progressive disintegration which reverses the initial integration and efficient fulfilment of duty which comprised the first half. The enveloping Scotch mists, ruined castles through which biting winds gust and empty, silent pine forests in which the slightest snapping of a twig ricochets like the crack of a gunshot are the perfect symbolic backdrops to express a state of alienation and psychological breakdown.

The film’s take on gender begins to change at this point, too. In the first half, the Johansson alien is a female inversion of the horror or serial killer archetype, a coldly manipulative, predatory stalker – a white van woman. But as her psyche fragments and she drifts from her purposeful pursuit, spiralling further inward (and outward), she becomes vulnerable and open to exploitation and abuse. This is very uncomfortable to watch. The base behaviour of the men she encounters, all of whom, with greater or lesser degrees of directness and brutality, are intent on fulfilling their own appetites and desires, offers a wholly negative outlook on the male sex. Again, there is an element of emotional experiment – how does this make you feel? There is an element of the revenge drama here, after all. She’s getting what she deserves, isn’t she? This is another reversal of generic form. The rape revenge film, one of the most troubling subsets of exploitation cinema, has generally been about women visiting violent retribution on their own assailants. Under the Skin culminates in a scene which reverts to the dispiriting visual style of the slasher film, giving us the close involvement in swiftly edited action which has been withheld from us throughout. The Johansson alien is pursued through the desolate ranks of pine trees by a forestry worker, whom she has briefly encountered earlier, and who has determined that she is on her own. The camera cuts rapidly between the two of them, giving a sense of the urgency of the chase, and creating a fearful tension. The man who is after her wears a huge, thick, high-vis coat, another armorial hide which exaggerates the size of his body and shrouds his ordinary, human frame in an intimidating, monstrous skin.

The final scene, whilst hardly comforting, has a certain bleak poetry to it. The alien form beneath the skin is revealed, only to be set alight in a petrol-soaked pyre. But perhaps this is only one further layer, burnt away to free something more formless beneath. There remains something unknowable about this being, as there remained something unknowable about the humanity which it had adopted as a disguise. This unknowability, the inability to get to the true core of being, the heart or essence, is the indeterminate conclusion of the story – and not necessarily a wholly downbeat one. Fire burns on snow, ashes mingle with the flames, elements coalesce in an alchemical admixture which promises some new combination. This landscape mirrors the opening images, a return to the human form abstracted, transformed, a drifting part of its surroundings. It’s a climax fitting for a film concerned with death, transfiguration and the deceptive nature of surface appearances. At this point, I realised what the film reminded me of: the emotionally intense, poetic and death-haunted SF short stories of James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon). The final images, with the camera rising to follow the path of the spiralling ashes into the snow filled sky until flake and cinder are indistinguishable, can be summed up by the title of one of Tiptree’s finest, most overwhelming stories – Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

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