At the New Zealand International Film Festival: masochism and menace in new films by Roman Polanski and Jonathan Glazer.
Sordid history aside, Roman Polanski is a masterful director, though it’s been a decade since he’s made a truly memorable movie. His last couple of films, Carnage and The Ghost Writer, showed off a technical mastery of the medium, but lacked the claustrophobic menace and paranoia of his earlier works.
With Venus in Fur, Polanski makes good use of David Ives’s sexy and snappy stageplay, transplanting the setting from New York City to Paris. In it, an actress pops into a theatre to audition for Venus in Fur, a play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s masochistic masterpiece, but she is late and the director is about to leave. She begs him to give her a chance and he eventually relents. The audition is on and the battle of the sexes begins.
What could feel overly stagey and stilted in the hands of someone else comes across as tightly shot and seamlessly blocked. Nobody uses small spaces like Polanski. The script is also engaging thanks to its sharp dialogue and astute observations on the power relations between men and women. However, the characters are archetypes and the film’s trajectory is predictable for the most part. The back-and-forth between him and her, swapping roles as dominator and dominated, lead to an inevitably unsurprising conclusion. The performances by Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric are more than competent, obviously having fun with the script, but something is lost in the translation from stage to screen—we lose the charm of watching performers performing a play within a play.
Despite being an enjoyable experience and successful adaptation, the film ends up feeling like another minor work by Polanski. There is a saying that is tossed around: a minor film by such-in-such is still better than most. After all, this is the man who directed classics such as Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. But, for a film that revolves around the topic of masochism, Venus in Fur barely leaves a mark.
Another female in furs takes the spotlight in Jonathan Glazer’s mysterious and creepy Under the Skin. Whereas Polanski is a well-established veteran in the film industry, Glazer is a reasonably fresh face by comparison, debuting in 2000 with Sexy Beast, despite having directed numerous music videos. What Glazer does in Under the Skin is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. I was reminded of last year’s Upstream Color, with its refusal to disclose typically expected narrative information, leaving many viewers fumbling in abstraction. Glazer isn’t interested in unnecessary puzzle-games though. He wants to strip down the film to its most essential elements: a hypnotic soundtrack, elegant cinematography, a few mind-blowing sequences, and a beautiful actress who has never been better.
The story is paper-thin, presenting an alien in the form of a sensuous-looking woman (Scarlett Johansson) who picks up unsuspecting men off the streets of Glasgow. It sounds like something out of a schlocky skin flick, but the less you know about the film the better. It’s an inexplicable enigma, sharing the body of an arthouse horror film with the brain of a sci-fi masterpiece. Glazer has been called Kubrick’s heir many times and it’s an apt comparison. Both are incredible craftsmen who take their time making films of consistently high quality. At the heart of their films, though, there is a deep desire to explore mankind’s need for intimacy in the coldest of places. The coldness in Under the Skin takes literal shape in its grim Scottish setting, as well as in its notable lack of close human relationships.
Scarlett Johansson is utterly convincing as someone or something emulating human tics and behaviour, never fully understanding the emotions behind the actions. It’s a stark contrast to her warm voice-based performance in Spike Jonze’s Her, despite the robotic parallels. Her status as a sex symbol is also cleverly subverted, turning hollywood assets into a dangerous weapon.
At first glance, it would be easy to call Under the Skin an exercise in style over substance, but pull back its layers and you’ll find a picture oozing with a deep curiousity over humanity. Glazer’s film, like Johansson’s alien, is fascinated by mankind, desperate to understand us. As we watch, we too are forced to see ourselves through foreign eyes. It’s a simultaneously enthralling and alienating experience like no other.