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30 August 2014

Girls... Now Now... Fall

Partick, Glasgow

After months of considerable excitement, the aerolite is about to blaze across the Berlin sky. Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi/metaphysical/erotic thriller starring Scarlett Johansson is bringing in its trail one of the most alluring creatures the genre has ever spawned: 'Laura', the murderous alien succubus roaming the streets of Glasgow in her transit van in search of an unending supply of male meat. For aesthetic as well as thematic reasons, the film was predictably likened to both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Man Who Fell to Earth, the achingly beautiful motions of abstract celestial bodies being reminiscent of Kubrick's cool formal mastery, while the blank disconnectedness of the main protagonist was bound to evoke Roeg's cult masterpiece. However, if the motives of Dame David's landing on Earth are clear - to ship water back to his dying planet -, the rationale behind Laura's presence in Strathclyde remains obstinately opaque: is she spearheading some full-scale invasion or has she gone astray at the tail end of an operation that went horribly wrong? - although there might be a hint at the original novel's plot in the mush of bloodied human remains being conveyed into a distant, glowing furnace -, an indeterminacy that seems to have irked some critics. The profound sense of alienation from a world perceived from within the android's unformed mind is fantastically underscored by Mica Levi's eerie soundtrack - a dense texture of screeching, distorted strings, thumping metronomic pulses and obsessive drones -, with Cage, Scelsi and Xenakis cited as some of her main influences, although I personally detected more than one nod at Schnittke in the general atmosphere... Time itself gets mired in an endless dérive as Scarlett-Laura, stunning even with a dodgy haircut and in mismatched outfit, sits behind the wheel for hours on end, glumly staring into the distance, her predatory stance only interrupted by random attempts at pulling strangers - mainly Celtic fans spilling into the streets after the day's game. Tentative contacts are quickly aborted as most men decline her offer for a quick ride. Perplexed by the unintelligibility of human behaviour, grappling with the rules of working class, heterosexual seduction, she's armed with only a few learned chat up lines ("I'm a little bit lost. How do I get to Ibrox?", "Do you think I'm beautiful?"), a perfect image of vacuous bewilderment as on some estate a bunch of scally lads suddenly close in on the van and start ripping it apart, kicking and yelling. Just like the shiny black goo swallowing her helpless victims and keeping them floating in a state of weightessness, the city knows no mercy and is revealed in its essential, bare violence.

Here, Glasgow provides the strangest, most unnerving of urban settings, for once eschewing the gravitational pull of London - although I can't help wondering what it would've been like to see la Johansson cruising around neighbouring Cumbernauld's town centre with its sprawling space-age superstructure looming in the twighlight. The city, shot mostly at night or in a dull, faded winter light, amounts to little more than a disconnected succession of old Victorian glories, degraded council estates, suburban cul-de-sacs and business parks laid out around their mandatory roundabouts. In its outright refusal to yield to any form of sentimentality (something we'd actually be hard-pressed to experience in a place like Glasgow), the film conveys a sobering vision of the contemporary British city as it has developed in the past decades under exceptionally virulent neoliberal conditions. The brutal dystopia it ended up embodying has over the years been the stuff of many corrosive, creative endeavours, ranging from chronicles deriding the crappiness of it all, meditations on the crass vulgarity engulfing the land to the indictement of the shoddy environment a philistine, security-obsessed culture has wilfully created, a societal meltdown whose antithesis is seen in some privileged quarters of the middle-classes in the traditional continental city, where vibrant, carefully designed public spaces foster intense, civilised interaction - a notion hard to deny when one has enjoyed the sheer beauty and exhilarating urbanity of any middle-sized Italian town... In fact, it isn't the first time that Glasgow has been used as a backdrop to moody tales of inner-city disintegration and threat of class warfare - a British speciality from, say, A Clockwork Orange to Come to Daddy. Red Road by Andrea Arnold (who went on to direct the magnificent Fish Tank) is awash with the imagery of CCTV-saturated, rubbish-strewn and drug-infested squalor, the infamous high-rise estate awaiting, windswept, forlorn and choking in asbestos, its impending demise. Ironically, the last of the surviving Red Road towers (bar one sheltering asylum seekers) were to be choreographically blown up Las Vegas-style for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, this moronic act of municipal hubris scheduled to be beamed to millions of stunned viewers across the world - because of security concerns the plan was mercifully scrapped at the last minute. In Under the Skin, even the dreamlike natural landscapes ooze something deeply ominous, a mere extension of Laura's nefarious rampage across the city. In one particularly harrowing episode by the sea, she lets an infant fend for himself on the beach after his parents have accidentally drowned. Screaming and writhing in anguish in the dark, he is doomed to an inexorable death.

Social entrapment, sexual repression and the desperation to transcend one condition to relate to others pervade everything, from the booze-drenched battle zone of the city centre to every little village she stumbles across. Amid shoppers united in a community of sorts through frantic consumerism, gangs of youths engaged in fisticuffs and ordinary girls in supermarket clothes out on the tiles getting wasted, she unexpectedly bonds with a severely disfigured man (beautifully played by Adam Pearson), who like many others gets picked up in the van at night, the only time he can step out and shop at Tesco's without being harassed. It truly is one of the most heartrending scenes in the film, a brief moment of tender intimacy and empathy as both find themselves fleetingly connected in the isolation they both share (he will eventually be spared the gooey treatment and allowed to escape, naked and haggard, to the hills overlooking Glasgow). The destabilising effect of her nascent humanity knocks her off course to the remotest corners of the Highlands where, in a state of permanent stupor, she follows whoever asks her to - to end up watching Tommy Cooper and listening to Deacon Blue with some beefy bachelor fortuitously met on the bus, a purely terrifying moment. Fearing for her own physical integrity and scared out of her wits after their first, and only, sexual contact, she will suffer a horrific fate deep in the woods - an otherworldly landscape of waterlogged undergrowth and tall, gnarled trees reminiscent of some Nabi painting - as a rogue logger, after assaulting her and confronting the alienness of her savaged body, douses her with petrol and sets her alight. Just as Thomas Jerome Newton, plied with alcohol and tacky luxury, succumbs to human schemings and becomes a wreck forever trapped on this sorry planet, Laura meets her downfall at her most vulnerable as a mix of conflicting emotions, childlike yearnings and budding sensuality begins to take hold of her. It is her primal state of unknowledge that gives us the perspective to view our world in the most clinical way: the asocial, segregated urban wilderness we choose to inhabit, the inexpugnable forces of class hatred and sexual oppression - an attractive woman driving around and walking in the woods alone is necessarily a whore courting abuse -, the devastation wreaked in hearts by prejudice and stigmatisation. How did it all come to this, and how much longer can we hold out? How to long for the overthrow of the hegemonic order along with its myriad forms of domination and the advent of an enlightened, liberated society at the hands of a simple, frightened species hellbent on destroying everything it comes into contact with? Just as it's unable to deal with the totalising concepts it devises for itself (whether political or religious) without debasing them, would real chances of emancipation rather not consist in localised, micro-acts of resistance, sidestepping whenever possible the injunctions of an ultranormative mode of social organisation?... It's just been reported that Planet Earth is set on a collision course with an unknown cosmic object, emerald green and unusually bright, whose sheer size and pull will leave it no chance to survive and be remembered. Its provisional name: Melancholia

Pinkston Estate, Sighthill, Glasgow


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