Under the Skin (Glazer, 2013)

Under the Skin (Glazer, 2013) September 11, 2013


There are so many different ways one can finish the sentence “Every year at TIFF there is one film that…”

For most of Under the Skin‘s 108 minutes, my conclusion to that sentence was “…that you go to based on buzz and then remember that it was the director’s fans, not you, who were anxious to see it.”

After the conclusion and ten minutes of Jonathan Glazer’s Q&A I had changed my answer to “…that you really want to see again.”

Make no mistake, part of the allure of a film festival like TIFF is that it enables those who are so inclined to be trend setters, early adopters. I am not immune to this pleasure. But as with all other forms of journalism, the drive to be first–with a report, fact, or opinion–can have its own perils. One is that certain works demand more of us. They require us not just to watch but to think. When one has an artist, like Glazer, who is willing to experiment with new techniques and forms of storytelling, those drives often get crossed. I’ve often found myself formulating a review or a response in my head while watching a film, even (and this is the main point here) before I was entirely sure what I was looking at.

I recall looking at early reviews of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and being struck by the same point: critics often have a hard time differentiating between something that is doing the conventional poorly and something that is doing the unconventional (or new) well. For that reason, I would add another conclusion to my opening sentence “…really benefits from having a Q&A.” Yes, I’ve had Wimsatt & Beardsley beat into my head for enough decades that a part of me gets the auteur who wants the work to stand on its own. (Earlier in the week Kelly Reichardt pleaded with her audience to not make her talk about the end of her film.) But talking about one’s process and intent can illuminate interpretations not merely control or coerce them.

Enough metadiscourse about the reader-response critic’s process. What’s the film about? Well, I want to tread lightly here, because despite seeing enough descriptions of the book the film is based on to convince me that a key fact of the film is not a spoiler, I do believe that appreciation for the film will be enhanced if viewers let it reveal itself and its meaning at its own pace. If you don’t know what it is about (and aren’t a viewer that needs to be warned off violence, sex, or nudity), I would recommend reading as little as possible before you see it.

Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, who spends most of the film stalking men. She finds them easy to pick up, and despite her rather direct line of questioning, few realize they are in any danger. Perhaps the gender reversal makes it simply unfathomable to them. Are guys not conditioned to think of themselves as potential victims? Is there something biological driving human behaviors or are many of them learned? By removing many of these encounters from a narrative and (more importantly) cultural context, Glazer’s film asks us to contemplate how we know what we believe we know about human behavior. The director himself opined that he thought the second half of the film was about “the drift towards moral intuition [and …] the stuff that makes us human.”

In addition to some heavy themes provocatively told, the film benefits from a superb score and an experimental visual style that merges a naturalistic pace and distance in the outdoor encounters with a symbolic and stylized representation in the indoor encounters. Glazer said the film started with a feeling, not a plot, and that he was looking for a language to “communicate visually how [Laura] feels.” Once I understood that, the film not only made more sense to me, it became somewhat poignant.

I go to TIFF for the opportunity to see films I might not otherwise be able to see. I also go to TIFF to see them with and within a community that is passionate and informed and can thus enrich my own experiences. We tend to think of criticism as being a solitary exercise, with each critic carving out and defending critical judgments unilaterally. None of us is right all the time, though, and those of us who are willing to listen (even when that means we won’t always be first to speak) may form judgments  that we are happier about and that are more helpful than always and only tweeting that quick first impression.

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