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Under the Skin

Short answer: atmospheric dark fantasy with some memorable scenes and Scarlett Johansson naked, but slow and lacking in story. Cautiously recommended, as long as you’re prepared to be kinda bored.

Longer thoughts below — spoilers ahead.






I have a theory about art movies — that they are boring on purpose, and boring in a particular way, in order to signal “this is an art movie.” So they always have plenty of long suspended moments, usually well-filmed, during which there is no dialog and nothing in particular is happening. Professional cinema reviewers never seem to mind, either — it’s rare for glacial pace and lack of incident to be singled out as flaws.

It makes me feel like a cretin sometimes, to be sitting there watching a movie — this one, or Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Brokeback Mountain, or Martha Marcy May Marlene — and be thinking, “this is good, but it could be less boring.” It’s almost like being able to put up with boring art, without calling it out for being dull, is recognized as a signal that you are a person with taste. You are a person who is not bored by art movies. You are better than those restless yahoos squirming in the back, who just came because they wanted to see Scarlett Johansson take her clothes off, and are whispering to each other about how horrible this movie is and they should have seen the new Captain America instead.

Really, I think I wouldn’t have been bored at all if it had been a little more up front with the story. There’s a fine line between “enigmatic” and “completely opaque” and I think this movie falls too much on the opaque side. But that’s another way of signaling that we’re watching an art film, isn’t it? Make the audience work to figure out what’s going on, and give them lots of time to think really hard about it.

Every review of this movie calls Scarlett Johansson’s character an “alien,” but they must be getting that from the press kit or something, because there is actually nothing in the movie to tell you what kind of inhuman predator she is. She lures men into a puddle of black goo, and her true form is person-shaped black goo, and she has a silent protector/boss/cleanup man who rides around on a motorcycle — none of that signals “alien” to me. If it’s important to know that she’s an alien, in movie terms, we don’t. She could be some weird predatory selkie. (The movie is set in northern Scotland. I wasn’t sure if the frequently unintelligible accents were intentionally thematic.)

The movie has only one real plot turn, about halfway through, when she lures a severely disfigured man back to her place, and fails to finish him off. We see him start heading into the black goo, and then later we see him running naked across a field. After that point, she no longer picks up any victims and her body seems to be breaking down — she’s clumsy, unable to communicate, and eventually literally disintegrates as the Scarlett Johansson outer shell sloughs off to reveal the creature underneath. She shows signs of going native, ordering a piece of cake that she literally can’t eat, displaying fear, and trying to have sex (which ultimately fails, because, it is strongly implied, she lacks an opening in the appropriate place.)

Now, the scene where she picks up the disfigured man is really lovely. Her script is exactly the same as it always is — she displays no awareness at all that he’s not the usual average-looking guy unable to believe he’s getting hit on by somebody who looks like Scarlett Johansson. His wary disbelief, and ultimate acceptance that it must be a dream,  is genuinely touching. But why doesn’t he get absorbed by the goo? I’ve seen several reviews that assert she takes pity on him and lets him go, but there’s not a moment in the film where we see her make that decision. So I was convinced that it was just the mechanism breaking down somehow. If the breakdown is caused by a change in her — an infection of humanity, perhaps — that’s a pretty important thing that the movie should actually have shown us.

Still, as I indicated above, I cautiously recommend this movie, if you’re willing to put up with being a bit bored. Many of the scenes are really memorable and creepy, and the score is fantastic. It’s an interesting movie to have seen, even if the act of sitting through it in the first place is sometimes dull.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2014 05:17 pm (UTC)
I have a theory about art movies — that they are boring on purpose, and boring in a particular way, in order to signal “this is an art movie.” So they always have plenty of long suspended moments, usually well-filmed, during which there is no dialog and nothing in particular is happening. Professional cinema reviewers never seem to mind, either — it’s rare for glacial pace and lack of incident to be singled out as flaws.

Yes! I have noticed this as well. It's as if the filmmakers think that there's some sort of artistic integrity inherent in being dull, and that they're giving in to crass commercialism if every scene is actually engaging and drives the story forward.
Apr. 13th, 2014 09:00 pm (UTC)
It might be related to the notion that "high art" must be Chekhovian rather than Shakespearean.


Apr. 14th, 2014 06:28 pm (UTC)
I'm looking forward to this one, having liked the director's previous two movies. As for art films, I don't think they're deliberately boring. A lot of them are anti-narrative, and I think it's a philosophical thing. Story comes with built-in assumptions/guidelines, and the makers of art films are trying to escape or deconstruct those. They are often trying to get us to think about how meaning is created and to be aware of the artifice of the creation. If you like Story, the lack of it can be boring, but I don't think that's the goal.
Apr. 14th, 2014 10:47 pm (UTC)
I'm sure you're often right -- that art films shy away from standard narrative structure and the lack of conventional story is perceived as boring. But I speak more specifically of the kind of boredom Manohla Dargis praises here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/movies/films-in-defense-of-slow-and-boring.html?_r=0

Her attitude seems to be "well, of course it's boring! It's an art movie!" Which is the sort of thing leading to my perception is that this style of boredom is frequently a deliberate aesthetic choice made by filmmakers in order to elicit exactly the reaction that Manohla Dargis displays. I would point more to something like David Lynch's Mulholland Drive as an example of deconstructed narrative, but I wouldn't call that movie boring.

Of course, I wouldn't call it boring because, watching it, I wasn't bored. So there can be kind of a circular definition problem at work. I mean, I was just kinda bored watching the Evil Dead remake, but I'm quite sure it wasn't boring on purpose, and equally certain that it did not intend to be perceived as an art movie.

(And Under the Skin is far more frightening. So there is that,)
Apr. 14th, 2014 10:59 pm (UTC)
I actually don't think that's what Dargis is saying there. "Faced with duration not distraction, your mind may wander, but there’s no need for panic: it will come back. In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think." This is not a description of boredom, is it? She does say the Jeanne Dielman is tedious, but she says the film is trying to communicate the tedium of the character's life. I don't see her arguing that art films are boring just to be arty.
Apr. 14th, 2014 11:35 pm (UTC)
I didn't mean to suggest that she was making my argument, that art films use boredom to signify their artiness. I thought that she was displaying the reaction that this signaling is intended to provoke -- her contention seems to be that what people mean by "boring" in an art film is "giving you time to think."

I think that too. I just disagree that it is a virtue. If my mind is wandering all over the place, and I'm "trancing out" I would describe myself as bored. That's what I mean by bored. My attention has wandered away from the movie. It might wander back, certainly, and often does. But I don't count the space where my mind was wandering as points in the movie's favor. I think of it as a flaw.

Apr. 15th, 2014 02:57 pm (UTC)
I guess when arty movies go bad for me I tend more toward irritation than boredom -- usually irritation that it's not as profound as it thinks it is. Recent examples would be Meek's Cutoff and Upstream Color. But I wasn't really bored by either film, because I found them both visually and sonically interesting, even when nothing was really happening storywise. It's just that the ideas they were trying to get across seemed pretty sophomoric to me. So it goes.

Apr. 15th, 2014 03:44 pm (UTC)
usually irritation that it's not as profound as it thinks it is

Ah, yes. And actually that's related to my talk of boredom. I think that those long, slow, nothing-happening spaces are meant to say "think deeply about this movie! It is really worth a lot of your attention!" and my response is frequently "not really. You are not as profound as you think, movie. Just get on with things already."

But I think different people certainly perceive different things as boring. I assumed that Paul was as bored by Brokeback Mountain as I was, but he wasn't -- all the beautiful nature photography won him over. And he assumed that I was as bored by a recent performance of Beckett's Happy Days as he was, but I wasn't -- it tried my patience a tiny bit toward the end, but overall I loved it. So that tells me that lack of dialog is probably what predisposes me toward being bored, while lack of visual interest is what gets him.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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