Saturday, July 19, 2014

Outside of Itself

Under the Skin is a movie (directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson) about a space alien that manifests itself in Scotland in the form of a sexy empty-eyed fur-coat-wearing lady.  She goes on a predatory rampage, luring young men into her black-tar trap apartment, seducing them into literally sinking into blackness.  The artistic spookiness of the movie does not come from the plot, but from Johansson's silent, stoic yet completely devastating performance and Glazer's intense redefinition of what a sci-fi flick is supposed to be.  Glazer takes the glum run-of-the-mill alien conceit and inverts the purpose of its conception, slows down the whole apparatus to focus on moments that slowly click into one another.  The interior spaces of the film (the alien's epic strange black-nowhere apartment, the yellow-dark kitchen domesticity of a sad young man who takes the alien in, the horror-movie woodenness of a cabin in a gray wintry forest) have an inescapable sense of obsession and completion, as if Glazer is working things out of his own consciousness, merging actual memories with movie scenes until they blur into something else, a sort of escape from both memory and from genre, producing what Stanley Kubrick was always after:  a strangeness that can only be style. 
You feel connected to a spinal column, not a movie at times, a dreamy, closed-eyed trip through a biological landscape lit with blood-thick sunsets casting shadows across pavement and straw and brick.  And then Johansson's slightly too pallid flesh, her black hair, her Elizabeth-Taylor lips.  She is a movie star, and this movie is her total iconic turn.  She is the movie.  We follow in her tracks but never completely understand her until the last moment of the movie, a gorgeous non-shock that's still shocking.  Her skin gets pierced, and it starts to slide off in a wintry Scottish forest after she's turned from predator to prey by a backwoods rapist.  What's underneath is a skinny shiny black mannequin that seems to be the source of all silence and all noise.  The connection between that object under the flesh, and the flesh, is what Johanson locates so skillfully in the movie.  Her eyes and her expression throughout the whole ordeal release a subtle twitchy sorrow that mimics both starving animals and newborn babies without losing that ethereal oddness the movie needs to stay outside of itself.  Johansson is a genius.
The only victim that the alien allows to escape in Under the Skin is played by Adam Pearson.  The character is a lonely, sexually inexperienced man with facial neurofibromatosis.  Pearson's face is a constellation of tumors, and it's Glazer's triumph here that he did not hire an actor without a disability to portray someone with a disability.  The deformity is real, and Pearson's way of using his disability to increase the movie's meaning and atmosphere is to remain himself while also finding a way to connect with Johanson's monster.  A new kind of beauty corresponds from that telepathy.  The alien recognizes herself when she understands that this man is not like all of the other lonely guys she picks up in bars.  He's struggling with something that she struggles with without knowing it:  their shared loneliness reaches beyond sex and seduction into a realm of understanding.  Pearson plays the part without one shred of ego or self-pity.  He's there, himself.  If Glazer would have hired an actor without a disability, the prosthetics would have been the meaning here.  We would have been aware of the phoniness and in awe of the audacity.  With Pearson's subtle, grim performance, we recognize so much more.  The two "aliens" find a way to connect outside of ability/disability.  They are both wandering the earth in search of an escape that can only happen when people close their eyes and rethink every thought they've ever thought.