Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Fair warning: Things are about to get candid. But don't worry, the discomfort will be all mine. I hope.
But first, a second warning, this one about Under the Skin, that other Scarlett Johansson movie opening this weekend. Its director, Jonathan Glazer, doesn't want you to easily comprehend anything. Nor does he want you and I to have the same experience with it.
Aggressively oblique, Under the Skin feels just as alien as its protagonist, a woman named "Laura" who's not actually a woman. Played by a mesmerizing, better-than-ever Johansson, Laura is an alien inhabiting the body of a stunning woman. She speaks with an English accent and drives around Glasgow, Scotland, in an inconspicuous white van luring men to something that's certainly death but also a strange kind of erotic transference.
That's the cut-and-dry plot synopsis, but there's nothing at all cut-and-dry about Glazer's cinematic sensibilities, here expanding upon and upgrading from his lingering and uncomfortable 2004 film Birth by framing the movie through Laura's otherworldly point-of-view. As she slowly understands what it means to live amongst human beings, Under the Skin's initially cold and unnerving mood turns delicately vulnerable. The resulting empathy continues the film's unease, though, ultimately sending you out of the theater under a distinct feeling of hypnosis.
I first saw Under the Skin at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. As is the nature of covering festivals as large as TIFF, where you're expected to file reviews and other reactionary pieces at a consistent pace, I quickly jotted down my thoughts into a review, though re-reading said review now, six months later, I honestly don't have a clue how I did it. Because ever since that TIFF screening, I've been unable to shake off several of Under the Skin's images and sequences, so lord knows how I managed to pen a shotgun analysis that made any logical sense.
Seeing the film a second time last week, there were multiple instances where it felt like I was re-entering one of those reoccurring dreams that creep back into your subconscious while you're snoozing every now and then. Watching Johansson's Laura slowly walking backwards in her nefarious cottage's pitch-black void of nothingness, undressing down to her black bra as the doomed men disrobe while sinking into the black's floor watery abyss, I was transported right back to Toronto. The surreal visual that'd been stuck in my head for six months was right there before my eyes again, and none of its impact had been lost. The same goes for the film's most upsetting moment, when Laura unemotionally witnesses a man, woman, and their dog helplessly get swept into an ocean's violent current, leaving their infant son crying on the sand.
Even if Under the Skin doesn't connect with you in any ways beyond its surface-level disturbances, it's a film you can't outright dismiss. Glazer has meticulously constructed a new-age midnight movie that's currently drawing mainstream attention thanks to Johansson's presence but will no doubt confound the everliving hell out of anyone who buys a ticket strictly for her involvement.
But after my second time seeing it, I realized why Under the Skin has established residence in my brain. And, I'm willing to bet, that reason isn't exclusive to me.
Glazer has mentioned in numerous interviews that his primary intention with Under the Skin was to tell a story through the eyes of an alien. Which is why the film's first half is largely observational. Not yet comfortable in her human outer-shell, Laura walks through shopping malls and down public streets with inquisitive eyes and little to no interaction. Nobody around her can tell that she's out of her element, or, more importantly, feels totally out of her element. To them, she's just another pretty woman dressed in denim. The film's exceptional score, though, composed by Mica Levi, is all symphonic disorientation. You imagine that it's playing in Laura's extraterrestrial head the entire time. With it, her glances towards random men strolling down streets become creepy and voyeuristic.
Granted, I'm neither a woman nor an E.T., but I, too, often find myself walking around crowded public settings in leering silence. I notice everyone surrounding me, yet there's a noticeable distance between me and them. This happened the other day, actually. Making my weekly trip to the local Barnes & Noble in Bergen County, New Jersey, I was thumbing through the Fiction/Literature's "B" section in hopes of finding a copy of Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (sadly, none were in stock). To my left, a teenage couple, probably in the grip of mutual puppy love, were gabbing on about the merits of Shailene Woodley in Divergent, holding hands and repeatedly pecking one another's lips. Their affections seemed nice, but also foreign.
To my right, a couple of 50-something women were trying to pick out a book for a boyfriend, who apparently loves horror movies but doesn't read enough of the genre's written product. Thinking I could offer some of my vast horror knowledge, I headed back to the "R" section and snagged a copy of my favorite literary mash-up of psychological horror fiction and meta cinema-on-paper storytelling: Theodore Roszak's Flicker. Rushing back to the B's, assuming I was about to save the day, I handed Flicker to the woman and said, "Couldn't help but overhear your situation, and I think he'll really dig this." She looked at me with confusion, glanced down at Flicker's woman's-mouth-covered-somewhat-sado-masochistically-with-a-film-reel cover, and awkwardly muttered, "Oh, interesting," before walking away and whispering to her friend. Probably something to the effect of, "Thanks, weirdo."
Sandwiched in between two people presumably in love and two women who most likely considered me as some kind of intrusive eccentric, I sympathized with Johansson's Laura. I've rarely ever felt more alien. In that moment, Laura and I shared something in common: a disconnection from those around us.
The principle catalyst: I'm one of the only still-single people within the circle of friends I've had since high school. When we all get together, I'm the reason the headcount is an odd number. I sit at the dinner tables or on the couch and engage in conversation, but in doing so I mask what's really going on: that mounting feeling that, as time goes on and my buddies grow closer to their wives or girlfriends, I have less and less in common with them. It makes me feel like the alien of the group. The one who's listening to their stories of wacky kickboxing class mishaps or the headaches of planning a wedding with the inability to relate and/or connect. I'm Johansson's Laura standing on that beach in a kind of trance as people drift into the currents of intimacy and love.
Under the Skin also does an uncanny job of metaphorically capturing what it's like to casually date as single person. It's in those aforementioned sequences in Laura's cottage. The new guys she chats up inevitably disappear into a pit of nothingness—much like every new woman a single gent like me meets at a bar or through a friend and eventually doesn't pan out. Such as M., who I drunkenly danced with for hours two weeks back at a small-time NJ spot called Lounge 46. A few days later we linked up for dinner and one-night stand. There hasn't been much contact since; she and I had little in common or little to talk about beyond what happened at Lounge 46. It didn't take long for her to sink into the dating nether regions, where she's presently occupying the same space of every other girl with whom I've shared similarly brief rounds of forgettable courtship in the last two or three years.
All of my friends, who, like me, are in their early 30s, met their main squeezes under comparable circumstances (i.e., clubs, bars, through shared acquaintances) and are now living happily ever after. Still ineffectively attempting to find "the one" through dinner dates, rounds of shots with strangers at bars, and the occasional visit to Match.com and E-Harmony, I sometimes view dating as a sort of alien practice. Just like Under the Skin's Laura doesn't know what she's doing when a good Samaritan starts affectionately fondling and kissing her and she ends their naughty-time and looks down at her crotch, unsure what to make of what's going on down there. Her misunderstandings toward sex are mine towards the opposite sex.
Jonathan Glazer surely didn't have the plight of a single 32-year-old guy in mind when he made Under the Skin. But that's the beauty of a film that's as pointedly esoteric as his—anyone who gives it a chance will exit with his or her own interpretation. Some might examine Under the Skin as a female coming-of-age allegory presented through a science fiction lens. Others will condemn it for being all technical wizardry and zero meaning. A few, perhaps, may even tune Under the Skin out and label it artsy-fartsy gobbledygook. I do hope, though, that others see themselves in Scarlett Johansson's Laura. Who knows, it could be a girl who feels equally disenchanted by living single while her girlfriends all snuggle up next to their respective Mr. Right's.
I hope she's at Lounge 46 tonight.
Under the Skin opens today in limited theatrical release, via A24 Films, before expanding nationwide throughout the month.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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