Jonathan Glazer’s third film Under The Skin is something of a puzzle. Loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber, the film concerns itself with an alien who poses as a human woman (Scarlett Johansson) in order to lure single men to a strange alien space. Once trapped in the space, the men are absorbed by a black liquid that keeps them alive until the time comes for their flesh and organs to be harvested. However, the more time the alien spends in the company of humans, the more she is forced to refine her seduction techniques and this process of refinement seems to alienate her from her function.
Most (positive) reviews of the film praise Glazer’s visual panache and speculate that the film is concerned with human empathy and the process of becoming human. While I don’t disagree with this assessment, I do think it short-changes what is a very clever and unsettling film. The truth is that Glazer does not give his audience very much to work with when it comes to working out what the film is about and therein lies the point that the film is trying to get across.
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One of my greatest bugbears in fiction is the concept of the “well-drawn character”. If we wants to talk about a film in terms of its mis-en-scene or its shot selection then we can read books and treatises about such matters. Books filled with Eisenstein’s montages and Welles’ long takes. Similarly, if we want to talk about a book in terms of its narrative structure or its subtext then one can read Aristotle’s Poetics or the countless introductory guides to literary theory that fill the book shelves of people who really should be reading the original source material. These elements of fiction are well understood. Their subtleties catalogued. Their aesthetics understood. But what about the aesthetics of character construction? What distinguished a well-drawn character from a tissue-thin one-dimensional empty suit?
Presumably this area of aesthetic achievement is comparatively less well-travelled because, as humans, it should be obvious to us which characters are believable and which are not. We humans deal with each other quite a lot and so we presumably have a firm enough grasp of human psychology that we should recognise a character who is ‘off’ and unbelievable. Perhaps they behave in an erratic manner, perhaps they do not speak in a voice of their own, perhaps their actions do not follow from what we know of their character. In effect, we our ability to detect poorly drawn characters flows from the same place as our ability to read and interpret other people’s emotional states, the catalogue of theories, intuitions and received opinions that philosophers call Folk Psychology. However, some philosophers question the validity of folk psychology. They argue that most of our understanding of human behaviour is based on absurdly simplistic theories that are little better than superstitions. I share this doubt. This is why every act of characterisation strikes me as explicitly theoretical. Underpinned by all kinds of beliefs about the way humans work which may, in fact, be profoundly flawed or ludicrously simplistic.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie is a film that wears its Folk Psychological assumptions on its sleeve. It is a work of drama where the character arc of the main character is sketched not in bland generalities but in explicitly Psychoanalytical terms. The result is not only a fascinating character study, but also a meditation upon the moral status of psychoanalysis as an activity.
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