29 April 2014

Review: Under the Skin

Genre: Drama (Thriller)

Jonathan Glazer pierces the veil and infuses possibility into black in his new film, the hauntingly emotive Under the Skin, featuring established ingenue Scarlett Johansson as protagonist succubus, charged with sexual and coquettish power to lure stray men into being dissolved of essences. The content of the film, then — sure — is a trying push at mainstream narratives — and, insofar as that push disturbs a subset of viewers, I am not interested. I am interested in, rather, how that push comments on filmmaking as an art itself; for Mr. Glazer's pinnacular achievement in this newest film is not that he can push some audience members' buttons (indeed, several fellow viewers walked out of the theater in which I saw the film while we were there) but instead that he can so competently and elegantly craft a viewer's experience that quietly subverts and eventually disturbs the central core of the viewer and simultaneously reëstablishes the storyteller's devices in his or her mind. He advances.

A prime example of this advancement is in his use of the color black in the film. Never have I before seen black used in such a way to such effect as those in this film. Black is typically the color of void, of nothing, of death and emptiness; here, however, black is the color of possibility. Early in the film Mr. Glazer meditates on black, a lingering mass over the frame sculpted via chiaroscuro with scythes of light, before ever letting form take over. This meditation is sufficiently long, to redefine black as a tool and element, as an instrument; the length, like the length of terminological discussion at the beginning of any verbal treatise, entails redefinition of previously commonplace ideas, so that we know that black is not simply the evacuated after-effect of the defaultedly primary instrument, light, but is instead more interestingly now the primary instrument itself, a crafter and not the crafted. This reading of his visual text is born out in several ways, but namely in how his characters and plotting points emerge all from it slowly and deliberately: Early in the film, a woman is carried up from a ravine by a male character, who has slung her over his shoulder. Neither person is visible to the audience until they together emerge from the blackness; the light does not make them, but rather is a filtration of the all encompassing black from which they just emerged. In the blackness, in the ether, they and all things existed and it was then and there that the director chose to draw them forth in order to describe his message. This inversion of the typical nature of basic binary color, light vs. black, is a tremendous achievement of a filmmaker who is no stranger to dramatic exploration and physical intensity (see, for example, his previous film Birth [2004]). To say that I was impressed smacks of understatement; I came to quickly understand far more about the devices of filmmaking than I had known before the viewing.

On that point alone this film would merit recognition. However, it is not simply artistic or narrative craftiness that recommends this film; additionally, the use of the instrument to follow through the delivery of a necessarily visceral tale is just elegant. Though at times the craftsmanship is perhaps bulkier than it could be, the capitalization on the redefinition of color throughout the film is wondrous. I am thinking now clearly of one exemplary shot as an example: the camera's hovering behind Ms. Johansson's head and there fixated on her hair, many strands exactingly filamented from the darkness surrounding them — a unitary conceit of what works in the entire film. How many strands are dependent and intertwined from one rounded origin and how easily few stray and blow in the breeze, them seduced by the gentle caresses of seemingly errant breezes operating noiselessly and invisibly in the atmosphere around, to coax and extract from the mass just several and, if done properly, not disturb the lot while doing so; how fitting the roundness to be but a superficial covering of control and thought and dream — the brain — in everyone and of beauty and strangeness in her in particular; and how investigative the careful juxtaposition of such layered lines in narration I cannot say enough. Cinematographer Daniel Landin, editor Paul Watts, and director Mr. Glazer all have done great work here.

The film is finally to be recognized for its commensurately beautiful sound design. Mica Levi's dissonant score and Johnnie Burn's precise sound design set the visual content of the film off in brilliant and startling relief against the reality of the viewer's world, where commonplace quietudes interspliced among jagged music prickle hairs.

Overall, while not perfect, this film is a strong strong addition to the filmic canon of this era — one that I would be sad to have missed.

Grade: A-, bravo!

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