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Examining sexual politics in ‘Under the Skin’ and ‘Nymphomaniac’

"Under the Skin"

Filled with all kinds of opposing tendencies, “Under the Skin” is a movie that is by turns grimy and beautiful, confusing and enlightening, and vague yet specific. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen the film and I haven’t shaken it yet.

“Under the Skin,” opening at Liberty Hall Friday, revels in the limited amount of information it gives you. Director Jonathan Glazer co-wrote the screenplay with Walter Campbell and the prevailing strategy is alienation. Despite the fact that it’s based on a book by Michel Faber, all the details seem to be left out, or at least open for interpretation.

Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, a being that comes to life following the death of a young Scottish woman. Glazer opens the film with a “birth” sequence that could have been ported straight in from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Punctuated with the harsh, squeaky tones of Mica Levi’s sometimes painful score and dialogue snippets of Laura testing out her voice, it's completely disorienting and serves to put the audience in the same position as Johansson’s character, viewing this new world for the first time. One scene that takes place on a beach is viewed with an unthinkable amount of dispassion for the human condition.

At its core, “Under the Skin” is an exploration of how a complete stranger to humankind might view us. Laura drives through the Scottish countryside into the gritty environs of working-class neighborhoods, trolling for men to lure into her van. Glazer’s camera often takes on her perspective, and the use of so many non-actors gives the film an authentic, docudrama feel — which is completely at odds with what happens next.

Once “she” finds a willing victim, the film gets vague again. We see what happens, but where exactly do they go and what exactly is happening? Glazer has designed a nightmare sequence that only gets more haunting and mysterious with return visits. Seeing the fate of Laura’s victims works both as a terrifying mounting terror and an allegory for our own physical alienation from our own bodies.

It isn’t too often that I can say I’ve seen something in a movie that I’ve never seen before.

“Under the Skin” is aptly named. It feels otherworldly, as it burrows itself into your subconscious. The languid pace gives plenty of time to digest the images and their meaning. On one level, the film explores the banality of base human desires, and the difference between simply being sentient and actually becoming sympathetic. As a movie-going experience, it is thrillingly alive, hearkening back to the heyday of '70s art cinema.

'Nymphomaniac'

On the decidedly more self-aware tip, writer/director Lars von Trier’s four-hour “Nymphomaniac”— opening this weekend at Screenland Armour and already available on VOD platforms everywhere — also delves into male-female sexual relationships. Divided into a roughly two-hour “Volume I” and “Volume II,” it feels like a typical von Trier movie where the Danish filmmaker constantly rattles our cage, but this time out, there’s a playfulness to his button-pushing. At least until the sucker-punch of an ending.

Touted during its production as being pornographic, the unrated “Nymphomaniac” of course has more on its mind than graphic sex scenes, although there are plenty of those. It is a story told in flashback, with a woman confessing her shameful life story. Her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and she’s found beaten in an alley by an older intellectual gentlemen named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He takes her in and listens to her stories of a life of depravity, withholding judgment, even as she judges herself. Uma Thurman is particularly devastating in a brief scene, while Shia LaBeouf is appropriately shallow in an unconvincing role.

Von Trier is well-known for inflicting heaps of punishment upon his female lead characters, especially after movies like “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark” and “Antichrist.” The way that he exposes the inherent sexual hypocrisy in “Nymphomaniac,” however, is very sneaky. The conclusion that Seligman comes to after hearing this story may surprise you.

On one hand, the film is incredibly didactic. Joe’s voracious sexual appetite is shown onscreen with scenes of her as a young woman played by Stacy Martin, while Seligman comforts Joe in the present with pretentious analogies (from literary allusions to the joys of fly fishing) that come to life before our eyes.

If “Nymphomaniac” feels like a lecture sometimes — and it does, with numbers actually being added up onscreen as a character speaks — then von Trier also undercuts that serious tendency with black humor, such as shots of a schoolgirl Joe pleasuring herself in front of a chalkboard.

As sexually explicit as its trappings are and as absurd a story as it is, "Nymphomaniac" is an accomplished work from a provocateur with a distinct point of view. Somehow, despite all the meta digressions, unlikely coincidences, and nihilistic tendencies of von Trier's storytelling (the ending certainly subscribes to this leaning), a convincing sense of sadness and loss comes through.

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