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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Johansson shines in bizarre role


    More than any other film you’d see at a theater, be it a big chain or an art house, “Under the Skin” is a consummate cinematic experience. The film’s visuals, sounds, themes and performances all contribute to its overall vision.

    I feel that the less I give away about the plot of “Under the Skin,” the better. However, having a brief plot rundown would be helpful before going into this film.

    Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in the skin of a human woman who has come to Scotland. Accompanied by another extraterrestrial posing as a man on a motorbike, Johansson very quietly roams the streets and countryside.

    The film was shot on location in Scotland. By day, Johansson observes the humans, taking in all of their idiosyncrasies and habits. For these scenes the camera adopts a roving, intrusive POV perspective, almost like a security camera scanning. By night, the cobblestone streets become her hunting ground, as she surreptitiously drives around in an unmarked van. Under the guise of friendly chitchat with any lone man she happens to run into, she probes to see if they live alone and if they’re uninterested in her.
    Most of the men she picks up are not professional actors, and the conversations are unscripted and were filmed with hidden cameras. Only after their conversations were completed would the filmmakers approach the unknowing individuals and inform them of what was going on. The filmmakers would then ask if they would like to participate in scenes that contain more racy material.

    This technique, which reminded me of the impromptu conversations found in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s films, lends the scenes authenticity. There is a meandering yet pointed nature to them, as is the way with most conversation. There’s a lot of fluff and formalities, yet Johansson steers the conversation the way she wants.

    I won’t say what happens to the men once they enter into the black void that is her apartment, but it is a sight for both the eye and the mind. When we’re used to seeing men prey on women for one-night stands, it’s a stark difference to see that dynamic flipped.
    The visuals alone in this film are some of the most striking and distinctive of the year. The opening sequence is the construction of an eyeball that at first looks like an eclipse, only to reveal itself after a bevy of ambiguous geometric shapes and forms.

    The film also operates in a muted palette, and contains a very impressive use of infinite black. There is at least one instance of a very overt, disturbing use of the color red. When forced to watch this film in the confines of a dark theater, with no breaks or interruptions, the movie becomes a disconcerting, if not oppressive, experience. It made me tense and uneasy.

    The score’s strings alternate between two main themes to set the haunting scenes. One is a storm of pulse-pounding, scratching strings that drive forward with percussive determination. The other sounds are comparable to the “Scene D’Amour” theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” It is distorted, high-pitched, ethereal and paranoid, all in one big mass.

    It is extremely safe to say that you’ve never seen Johansson in a role like this one. She’s certainly been in more serious roles before, like in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but nothing this outlandish. She bares all, literally, appearing for the first time fully nude on film. Her performance begins appropriately distant and restrained, yet, as the narrative progresses, becomes more emotional and vulnerable.

    “Under the Skin” is a difficult movie, dealing with themes of sex and human nature in very complex visual and narrative styles.

    However, if you are able to navigate what at times seems impenetrable, the film offers up a lot. Don’t worry, it might take a second viewing. There are things I still don’t understand, and I’m certainly going to see it again.

    Grade: A-


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