UNDER THE SKIN (2014) dir. Jonathan Glazer

21 Oct


Movies in Japan are a few months behind the latest release. At the moment Under the Skin is playing. Last night I was lying in bed pretty sure that the day was over when I decided to take Joe and Jonny up on an invitation to go on a midnight venture to the movie theatre. It’s been almost half a year since I saw them last. Many days. For posterity I should like to mention that for the first hour, while we waited for Joe, Jonny spent most of the time projectile vomiting in MacDonalds or a 7 Eleven. It was more fun than walking to the 24 hour post office in Shinjuku to find that passbook cash withdrawals are unavailable after 9pm, which was the other thing we did before meeting Joe at Shinjuku station East exit. When Jonny was in the toilet, I read Snow by Orhan Pamuk. It worked out well.

Joe had to lend me the ¥1800 it cost to go to the theatre. Don’t ask why it’s not possible to withdraw on Sunday nights after 9pm. I once made the mistake of researching it and it’s something mindbogglingly dull like there’s nobody to man the desk at the ATM headquarters. Walking through ni-chome to the movie theater, Joe enlightened us about the true nature of closing Yoyogi park. The government and the media have made a big fuss about dengue fever. The gates to Yoyogi are still currently shut. But this means that there’s no platform readily available to the nuclear protesters. Yoyogi is a great space for a large number of people to meet easily to demonstrate. Without it, there isn’t really anywhere for demonstrators to meet and be taken seriously. If they got together outside a station, they would be sneered at for inconveniencing commuters. Joe’s theory makes sense: it is weird that the park continues to remain fenced off now the mozzies are hibernating.

We chose three seats together in the middle of the almost empty auditorium. Jonny had sent a link to the trailer that I didn’t watch. All I knew is that when I asked if it was a period drama, they laughed and said, “no, it’s a sci-fi, kind of”. The opening sequence caught my attention. It seemed to be taking place in space. Something was emerging or focusing. Then the image became an eye – light brown amber eye – with the pupil retracted. A river flowed: a dark channel in a snow covered backdrop. A man on a motorbike collects the body of a woman from the undergrowth and places her in a van. Scarlett Johansson strips the woman and wears the clothes. Even the underwear. From there the story begins.

Scarlett’s character steps out of a building, goes to a shopping mall, selects a fur coat and pink sweater to wear, which seemed to make wearing the dead woman’s attire pointless. Wasn’t she supposed to be pretending to be her? The shopping mall wasn’t one of those fancy spacious American ones. This was clearly the U.K.. It felt crowded. The inhabitants were over-weight. Everything was under loved. Cheap grey or black fabric wrapped around almost every body. Shops displayed their tacky glamour with an inward sense of pride. Their garish products were just there to be bought. The manner in which they were loved was unfathomable to Johansson. It made me a little homesick.

Next Johansson began to drive around the city of Glasgow, talking to young men, asking for directions, taking some in the van. Her utterly heartless behaviour can be seen when she murders a swimmer who has failed to rescue a drowning couple. Their toddler child is alone on the beach crying while she drags the body to the van. Later, to great effect, the man on the motorbike returns to the scene to destroy evidence of the swimmer’s existence. The child still weeps, alone on the shore in the dark. The man walks away unflinchingly.

We learn that Johansson takes the men to empty buildings. She undresses in a room with a black mirrored floor. The men undress and follow her across the room. She continues to walk backwards on the floor as they begin to submerge into it. Very strange indeed. At one point, we’re underneath the floor with one of the victims. Something weird is happening to him. His body creaks. Is he suspended in a fluid? He appears to be able to breathe. Something is going on with his forehead. He spots another man and reaches out to touch him. The other man explodes. A lifeless skin flaps about in the fluid as though a burst balloon. We see a red fluid conveyed through a vent.

At the end of the movie I still didn’t understand this scene at all. Jonny said, “It’s simple. She was murdering the men for their skin for the man on the bike to wear. When they got taken to that place under the floor, their insides were being removed. She began to become too human and experience sympathy so she ran away. The man was looking for her.” She is, of course, an alien. We can be sure of this at the end. The certainty alone made me want to watch this movie again. As we spoke about what we’d each noticed, the conclusion drawn was that there was so much silent detail in this movie it can only end up being a cult classic. Initially though, I’m not sure that I liked it. It felt mysterious in the same way as an amateur short does. Hashed together.

One day later, I feel that I love it. There’s so much to see another time round. Things that made little sense will be clearer with the knowledge she’s not of Earth. She can’t eat human food. She’s worried that her skin has torn after she has sex. Is the man on the motorbike wearing the skin of the previous men she seduced? Do they need the skins for more aliens to wear? Are more coming? The black and white colour scheme was pretty revealing. What more can be seen through that? Did I know one of the extras talking on her phone in a doorway? Gemma from Chester, was that you? Were there scenes near the end filmed ten minutes from where my parents live? (Update – Yes, there were). The questions have kept coming all day, today, another rotation of the Earth.

Later, when were drinking on the street in the vice-laden area of Kabukicho, the thought of comparing this movie to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey made more sense than it did before we’d left the cinema. Today, after reading many reviews that say a wide range of things, I’m impressed. My favorite review is this one from The Guardian newspaper. How is it possible for every critic to say something entirely different? There’s almost no dialogue. Imagery is paramount. There’s so much always-already there. Not to leave out Micachu, who has done a splendid job of producing a soundtrack that instantly transports to other points in time.

We often feel like we’re living on a different planet by being in Japan. It was a fun evening out watching the grotesque show of humanity, people watching at first on screen, watching an alien try to comprehend Glasgow. Then in the street surrounded by strange liquids that splashed up my bare legs, vomit, urine and endless bright caricatures lit by neon signs, chatting, staring, possessing what they see with their eyes.

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