Other worlds

Other worlds

‘Nympho II’ is TMI while a lack of clarity helps sell ‘Under the Skin’

By Michael Nordine 04/02/2014

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When last we saw the eponymous heroine of Lars von Trier’s two-volume “Nymphomaniac” a few short weeks ago, she was bemoaning her sudden inability to experience sexual pleasure. Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) many attempts to reignite that flame lead “Volume II” down darker and more violent paths than “Volume I,” which in hindsight feels like the setup to a joke without a punchline. 
   
This second half further reinforces the notion that von Trier thinks of Joe and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) as little more than mouthpieces for blandly contrasting worldviews. Though meant to lend heft and meaning to the licentious goings on, their constant volleying of ideas mostly serves to remind us that the least interesting way a movie can espouse dueling concepts is to have characters recite them in explicit terms that leave little interpretive work to the audience. Joe thinks her irrepressible urges make her a bad person, Seligman relates them to literary and biblical esoterica, and so on and so forth until the inevitable, painfully ill-advised ending.

“I think this was one of your weakest digressions,” she tells him after he’s interrupted her episodic tale for the umpteenth time; problem is, they’re needlessly distracting even when cogent. There’s never the sense that either volume of “Nymphomaniac” is building toward anything as revelatory as von Trier thinks, and every problem on display in the first installment is magnified in the second. 
 
“Volume II” is full of allusions — to the Grand Whore of Babylon, to von Trier’s hero Andrei Tarkovsky, even to von Trier’s own “Antichrist” — and stylishly made, but its dime-store wisdom makes for such a weak foundation that the best these accoutrements can hope for is to serve as temporary distractions from how little of interest is going on beneath the fleshy proceedings. 

“Under the Skin” is like a celestial documentary made by one species about another. It stars a perfectly cast Scarlett Johansson as an uprooted extraterrestrial who quietly, effortlessly lures unsuspecting men into a void of a room where a most unpleasant fate awaits; the lack of context — who she is, why she’s here — has the thrillingly uncomfortable effect of making us just as attuned to the strangeness of everyday minutiae as she is. Though we can speculate as to the reason for her extended stay, her aims are ultimately unknowable. It doesn’t matter: Jonathan Glazer’s dreamlike meditation on humanity is a wonderfully immersive sensory experience, and the initial lack of a clearly delineated narrative is a vital part of its singular DNA.

Calling herself Laura, this otherworldly being is so dispassionate an observer of human behavior that it’s sometimes difficult not to feel just as removed from her experiences as she is from ours. The funhouse-mirror image of humanity reflected back at both her and us as she roams throughout Scotland is ultimately quite revealing. Seeing our world through alien eyes defamiliarizes the most mundane of daily activities to the point of abstraction: walking down the street, shopping for groceries, and visiting the ATM all seem foreign and new. We are odd creatures, and how unsettling it must be to find yourself in the skin of a being you’ve yet to figure out.

“When was the last time you touched someone?” she asks the would-be victim whose outcast status finally forces her to see beyond her unstated mission and toward whatever it is that makes us who and what we are; one gets the sense that “Under the Skin” is asking us the same question. Rather than make a definitive statement about the implications of such a query, the elliptical nature of the film allows us to ruminate on why she finds his answer important in the first place — and what it might say about us as both a species and as individual members of that species.

Few films come along in which we genuinely have no clue what might happen from one moment to the next; this is one. Aided in no small part by Mica Levi’s beautifully abrasive score, Glazer builds an atmosphere of such unknowing that “Under the Skin” almost has the start-and-stop rhythm of a horror movie. Though truth is rarely within reach, danger is never far — especially since inhabitants of more than world only seem to show their true face when no one is looking. 

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