Monday, August 18, 2014

Lucy (Luc Besson), Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

You got some 'splainin to do

You don't know the thrill the surname 'Besson' sends up my spine--that is till I realize the crucial 'r' is missing. 

Without said letter I know I'll get something--a step up from Michael Bay, not quite Paul W. S. Anderson, the French equivalent of a Philly 'steak wit and Whiz: not haute cuisine, but a fairly tasty handful of kitchen grease. 

So it goes with Lucy. The movie's all about awakening human potential in the mind, usually pegged at ten or fifteen percent, and what happens when we reach the upper nineties and beyond--a possibility that any neurologist will tell you is total fantasy; we do use 100% of our brains, only not all at once, or all the time (Mythbusters spent an episode with an MEG machine demonstrating this). Surprised Morgan Freeman lent his name to this enterprise, after hosting all those science shows on TV--afraid he's lost some scientific street cred with me.

So--thoroughly silly adventure based on totally false premise; what's left? Besson used to have style--in The Last Battle, or La Femme Nikita or Leon or even as late as The Fifth Element he showed some ability to stage and shoot an action sequence (just don't expect him to come up with plausible characters, or reasonably affecting drama). He works best with a huge dose of humor, with one character--almost always male--standing in for the director and often providing the ordinary schmo's POV, layered with fairly witty commentary (Jean Reno in Leon; Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element).

Oh, and the rocket launchers. Besson has got to have his rocket launchers--I think it's in his contract. Only time he had to do without far as I know was in The Messenger, and only possibly because he couldn't work them into a script set in 15th century France (he made do with catapults, lots of 'em).

Digital effects have rendered him lazy, I think. Used to be his action had pop, a kind of violent grace that depended on actual human agility and daring, instead of said agility (not to mention flames and shrapnel) being digitally added post-production. I watch Leon and La Femme Nikita with a kind of guilty giddy delight; the action here inspires no guilt or gid, only unmitigated contempt. And maybe more than a little discomfort at the rather virulent racist stereotypes on display, of sinister or rapacious Asian gangsters (to be fair Choi Min-sik--Park Chan Wook's favorite actor, far as I know--puts some grunt and savor to his role as Korean mob boss, for some unexplained reason operating in Taiwan).

In the end the victim (Scarlett Johansson--goofy at first, then increasingly less interesting) attains transcendence, but of a kind so digitally and emotionally uninspired you want to blank out and disappear as well. Besson's intentions are more than noble--he seems to admonish us, amidst the gasoline flames and mayhem, to rise above ourselves, to seize this moment in our short lives and live life fully. The man should listen to his own words; he seems to be bouncing after the next step in cinematic evolution with impotent awkwardness, flapping helplessly at his goal on little dodo wings.  

Skin deep

Now Johannsson in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin starts out the way she ends in Lucy, as a blank-faced nonhuman. Only in Under it's the start of a Kubrickian take on the vampire film, Glazer's best-effort attempt to adapt an unadaptable novel by Michel Faber (which I haven't read, for the record). 

The first half is really the better part; after an opening involving planetary alignments a la 2001 (sequence ending with a closeup of an eyeball that could as easily be Dullea's), the film follows a young woman's predatory practices as she lures men one by one into various apartments and houses, to end up in an eerie reflective pool (a dimensional door, I'm guessing, leading to the home planet of whatever intelligence is directing the lure). Unpleasant events follow, though they aren't half as unsettling as the cool distant manner in which Glazer witnesses them--with only the slightest of musical accompaniments (more a collection of sound effects really) and almost nary a close-up, Glazer adopts the uninvolved, unfeeling point of view of the alien intelligences he depicts. He has Johansson smiling and asking various menfolk to step in her van, and the friendly warmth with which she does this--the casual yet efficient way she immediately establishes that this or that passenger is friendless and unattached--is chilling. She's prolific and relentless, yet never quite so obvious that she alarms her targets (on the other hand most of them are so intent in getting in her pants it's like a running gag--she can't herd them in fast enough).

This distant tone is most successful--and most horrifying--in one particular scene, where the lure (don't feel right calling her an actual 'woman') visits a beach and starts talking to a tourist camping out in a tent. He interrupts their talk to rush to the water and rescue a couple in peril from the oncoming waves. She walks to the water past the couple's child shrieking in the sand, and the point hits home: this figure with the gorgeous lips and come-hither sway isn't human. She can successfully imitate form and manner to the point of seducing practically anyone with balls but it's all clearly a mask, to assume or drop at any moment, at her convenience. 

Later she develops a conscience, the film a more conventional narrative, and some of the chill is lost--for the better or not is debatable (don't think so, myself). The ending (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) feels forced--would a man intending to assault an alien, on realizing its true nature, be so violently aggressive? I say he'd keep running. Glazer does come up with a creepily affecting scene, where the lure meets a man with neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson)--in an interview Pearson tells of how he helped Johansson come up with the right things to say and do to seduce him, and you can't help but develop a sense of uneasy dread as he responds to the come-on. 

Not perhaps a complete success, but especially with that quietly lurid first part Glazer proves himself a more ambitious and more capable (if more pretentious) filmmaker than Besson. If you must have your daily dose of the actress I recommend the latter--you come away with something not so easily scrubbed off, even with a scouring pad. I know; I tried. 

No comments: