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‘Under the Skin’ sets Scarlett ablaze

by Melissa Weller

April 9, 2014 | 1:02 pm

Scarlett Johansson is an alien temptress in "Under the Skin."

Scarlett Johansson is an alien temptress in "Under the Skin."

Scarlett Johansson has had a very busy year, least of which from dealing with the Oxfam and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions hoopla we’ve covered so extensively. With two box-office smashes opening last weekend and fresh from her role in the Oscar-contended Her, Johansson is steadily establishing herself a reliable and extremely versatile staple among Hollywood’s elite.

Opening alongside Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which broke the April box office record last weekend at $96.2 million, was Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, adapted from Michael Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name. This is only the third feature film after a 10-year hiatus from the English director, his other big-screen endeavors Sexy Beast and Birth appearing in 2000 and 2004, respectively, but the man keeps busy. Additional resume items of note include Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” videos, as well as multiple big-company commercials.

This surreal sci-fi thriller presents Johansson as an alluring alieness, a femme fatale from a far corner of the universe. Indeed very Stanley Kubresque, as it’s been noted, with 2001: A Space Odyssey resemblances especially acute in the beginning as the camera zooms and fixates on a kaleidoscopic all-seeing eyeball, begging comparison to the ominous moments spent with Discovery One’s rogue computer pilot HAL during his takeover. Both signal a sentient presence of the Unkown, a Thing from a world not ours who intends to play around in a reality that is, very much, ours.

The body-switch sequence where we witness the first stage of Occupy Scarlett looks like an interactive American Apparel billboard or a lo-fi Beyonce video, and the vibrant black-and-white scheme popped from the Hollywood Arclight screen. This sequence is all style and an overview of what the next 100-plus minutes might have in store.

Donning an ashy black pixie wig and lips a rosy melon, the émigré drives through the streets of Glasgow seeking out unassuming Scots, most of them non-actors, as they walk to and from wherever they’re going or have been — a question left to the imagination since their heavy Scottish enunciations render their exchanges nearly inaudible. Just as well. Their fates are sealed, a babe in the woods. She asks for directions and offers a friendly lift, because, yes, she was headed that way too. Safely zipped in her Scarlett suit, luring her prey back to her place is not a difficult task, a surprise to no one. A stand-up suit of armor they’ve chosen for insuring the job gets done. Once she and her lusty victim arrive to her sex-death portal, they become wholly transfixed on her body, which is covered by fewer and fewer pieces of clothing with each step of their death march. So entranced they are by her voluptuary promise, her subjects don’t notice they’ve been trudging through a swamp of tar-like substance until they’re completely submerged in what is now a slaughterpool, of sorts. There they stay to be shucked into food for her homeland.

It would be less accurate to call Under the Skin a psychological thriller than it would a sensological one. Though Johansson does learn to feel empathy for her victims, then graduating to more intimate capabilities (which burns her in the end), character developments, relationship ebbing and flowing, and plot lines are of low priority. At times frustratingly low, admittedly, but keep attuned to your senses and surrender to the orchestra’s distorted beauty. The controlled, stylistic frenzy plays David Lynchian tricks on the body’s psyche; long takes breed the kind of suspense that seeps into your marrow.

A vital accompaniment to the shifty visuals and crafty editing tactics is the score. The music in this film is a calculating monster. This is 26-year-old Mica Levi’s film score debut, and as far as first impressions go, she handed over a tidal wave of a splash. Levi gave rise to her own character out of this demented, bewitching arrangement, an aural jester hiding at every corner. A haunted festering one moment and hysteric mania another, the affectations press and pull you to and from your seat like a marionette. Because dialogue doesn’t as much take a back seat as it is thrown in the trunk, maintaining an active auditory presence falls heavily on the score’s shoulders — and not only is it caught, it’s hoisted up with formidable force.

They say anything worth seeing once deserves to be seen twice and movies like Under the Skin, ripe with symbolism and subjectivism, are a reminder why this is so. To be taken with a film or any piece of artistic expression usually involves going home, thinking about what you saw, talking and tweeting to friends about the various components that stood out — writing, dialogue, acting, special effects, direction … the anatomy of film-speak is considerate in that regard; it’s fairly easy to compartmentalize for conversational purposes. Under the Skin is a different beast — it makes you feel about what you saw. Pay attention to how your outer casing and inner lenses have been manipulated after leaving the theater and rejoining society — the immediate effect is jostling and a little unsettling. As in the movie, words will be hard to come by. Allow yourself to marinate.

Liberally proclaiming good movies “unlike anything I’ve ever seen!” has become a habit of which many are guilty, myself included. The proclamation is rarely, if ever, used in a negative context and often employed as a selling point. I use it now as a warning. Under the Skin isn’t for everyone and isn’t exactly the most enjoyable viewing experience. But as a sheer spectacle is very, very cool.

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