“Under the Skin” in black and white

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Never be lulled into thinking that a stylist has nothing to say. Jonathan Glazer has made three films all heralded for their style, but he uses those visual gifts for more than just figuring out the coolest camera angles. His debut, “Sexy Beast,” began as a late middle aged take on the British crime film, the camera gliding over Ray Winstone’s baking flesh, but became a strange and sad portrait of middle-aged reckoning.

Then came 2004’s “Birth,” his last film, which followed the chilly waltz of Stanley Kubrick’s camera moves so closely that many dismissed it as a pastiche, missing the mournful tale of romantic obsession that lay beneath.

Now, after nearly a decade, Glazer is back with his third film, “Under the Skin” (now playing at Sundance) and it’s almost certainly his best. And he proves himself so confident a stylist that he creates a pervasive and unsettling mood in part by pitting radically different styles against each other.

The most visually striking are the heady, abstract images of “Laura” (Scarlett Johannson) in her natural habitat, a chilling nothingness marked by the occasional light or pool of water. Interiors are a stark white or black that go beyond “2001” Kubrick — in their emptiness, they seem almost elemental, like the characters have wandered into a Pina dance piece or a Mary Zimmerman production.

We see white as a symbol of creation — when a nude Laura is born and takes the clothes of a dead woman (her predecessor, I’m thinking?), the change is made against a blinding white. That makes black, of course, the symbol of destruction, as Laura leads one randy Scotsman after another into an inky, seemingly endless space. They follow her lure, removing their clothes, eyes fixed upon her, unaware that they are slowly sinking into the blackness itself until its too late.

What makes these sequences even creepier and more otherworldly is that the world outside these spaces are realer than real, a gritty, bustling Edinburgh that Laura glides through in her white van, looking for prey. Glazer uses dashboard mounted cameras and natural light in these scenes, and apparently Johansson often improvises several of the interactions in the film with real people out on the street. (She’s great at this, by the way — watch how her charm suddenly switches on as she peppers her potential victims with quesitons, then suddenly blinks off when she realizes her potential target isn’t suitable.)

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Just as the humans are out of place in her black-and-white environment, Laura is just as out of place in ours, evident when she ventures out of the safety of her van and into the sensory overload of a mall, a disco or a crowded street. Those two distinct visual styles highlight the otherness that human and alien see in each other, and that Laura draws more and more curious about.

In the third act, when Laura goes on the run, we see these two distinct worlds starting to bleed together. Laura is now the one who gets carried across the water by a friendly stranger, rather than leading other men to water. Her too-chatty patter she used to entice men is mirrored by the logger she meets in the woods. Lost in the woods, the green is marked by small glistening black pools, as if a sign of her old existence starting to reassert itself.

And finally, the black-and-white world of her home environment merges completely with our world in the final scene, her death. The ruins of her bodies (her true self and the Laura disguise she wore) lay aflame in a snowy field, and the camera tracks upward to follow the black smoke curling into the sky, a symbol of death again. But the smoke fades out against the white of falling snow, which eventually spatters the camera. It’s a rebirth, of sorts, for Laura in this strange new world.

 

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