“Under the Skin”
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson
Of the many masters of cinema, Stanley Kubrick bulges out an esoteric monolith; an unbound vision of dystopian tomorrowland. Knowingly or no, he redefined cinema and still has a hulking influence over modern pictures. He started making movies in the age of Hays Code, a totalitarian, aggressively Calvinist model of censorship that restricted the depiction of such things as “pointed profanity”, “any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette”, “illegal traffic in drugs”, and other horrors like “white slavery” (…). According to the master himself, these stringent policies ruined his 1962 adaptation of the controversial novel Lolita, a source riddled with sexual affront unsuitable for the likes of pre-Vietnam War gentleladies and gentlemen.
With censorship regulations lifted in 1968 (noticeably congruent to the proliferation of public access to the actual, and horrific, goings on in Nam), Kubrick led the charge into uncharted territory, stringing sex, violence, and gore like beads onto the necklace of cinema’s rebirth. Visually striking tableaus of the “dark side” came to define his conclusively arresting work as he quickly became a maestro of these newly unregulated waters. Only four years later, he released what is still considered one of the most disturbing and controversial films to ever hit the market, another adaptation: A Clockwork Orange. Heralded as a celebration of the nasty side of human nature, Clockwork was a whole new bag and met mixed response from the critical and filmgoing community. Even critic Godfather Roger Ebert dumped on it. Lasciviousness, sadism, and sexual perversion went on to define many themes that ebbed throughout the pantheon of Kubrick’s work and the many, many filmmakers who he influenced.
Jonathan Glazer‘s latest, Under the Skin, has drawn much early comparison to Kubrick’s work, most notably, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The similarities aren’t difficult to unearth as his work often feels like straight homage, if not strong stylistic replication. And when it’s not busy being magnificently inaccessible, Under the Skin‘s powerful visual topography and mundane scene work provide the audience an unnaturally vague stethoscope to cull their own meaning from Glazer’s work. His is a film that could be interpreted six ways to Sunday and still wouldn’t have one sound, “definitive” reading. It’s a tone poem for the sci-fi nutcase, a probing of what it to be human, ineradicably captured through the eyes of an alien.
Like Clockwork, Under the Skin unfolds in parabolic fashion with the rise and descent of our “heroine” – a mysterious seductress from another world. She’s not as uncouth as Alex but her victims are just as many. Glazer’s brazenly obscure opening sequence details our unnamed seductress in the belly of her inception. She’s pieced together with the wardrobe of casual victim the first, practicing newfound pronunciation, perfecting an English accent like Neo downloading Kung Fu. Wearing a Scarlett Johansson skin suit, the world is her oyster.
But Glazer refuses to walk on eggshells around his audience, nor does he yield to the straight-forward demands of the mass consumer. His work lives in a world where Kubrick is king, where pop sensibilities drown alongside the arbitrary family that surfaces in the film’s midst. It’s a film of coincidence and self-discovery, told through parabolic symbolism and vague iconography. We craft our own meaning around the uncertain infrastructure he’s presented. Reality is Inception limbo. We build, we destroy. Spin the top to make sure it’s all real.
Johansson is in increasingly common adroit form, an apt femme fatale that serves as protagonist and antagonist both. Knowingly dressed down so her natural beauty can shine through, she doesn’t quite put in the caliber of career-topping performance one would hope for in such a one-woman-show. As her character pulls a reverse “Shining”, becoming increasingly tapped into the meaning of the human struggle, Johansson is afforded more opportunities to perform a killing blow but never manages quite the venomous sting one would expect. She plays her character like a living Venus Fly Trap. Cloying helplessness flows into a dastardly come-hither dance. She snares us all.
What Glazer fails to capture of Kubrick’s cajolery is the subversive but populist appeal he purposefully built into the foundation of his work. No matter how out there Kubrick got, he maintained a semblance of mainstream magnetism. There’s a measure of esoteric relatability in Kubrick’s films that escape his many protege wannabes, Glazer included. Then again, Kubrick might be a master because of his unusual circumstance, his being a child of two eras of film. That he was forced to function within a box for so long, when he did broke out, he had all the tools and training to transcend generic storytelling tropes. In many ways, the cell of censorship made his blossoming that much more potent and purposeful. Glazer’s work is what happens when you start at Z and attempt to work your way forward.
No wonder then that In the Skin is a conflagration of human genitalia. Penises – flaccid and fully boned up – float towards the siren’s call of Johansson’s perpetually undressing figure. An explicit experiment on just how weird humans are in their natural state or a celebration of turn of the century carnal liberation, Glazer’s intentions are as masked as the occult figurines of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
For all its lurid obscurity, Glazer’s film finds potency rejuvenating the strange in cinema. Obscurity is his landmark, blurry ideology his send off. Under the Skin is sure to be the talk of cinephile’s niche circles like Enemy was last month and for good reason: it’s engaging, seductive and totally fucked in the head. It’s just enough to temporarily numb your psyche and challenge your assumptions of what cinema ought to be.
But even when you’re inevitably scratching your head as the credits roll, the repeated vignette of Johansson’s stripping down the runway will prove burned in your mind’s eye, captivating and near medicinal purpose enough to warrant the indie theater ticket price.