It's engrossing, but can only dig so deep.
A 2012 behavioral study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggested that cross-sex friendships are near impossible because “men’s and women’s evolved mating strategies impinge on their friendship experiences.” Interview results found men to be more attracted to their female friends while also being more likely to overestimate the reciprocated feelings from those women. Guys and gals can't “just be friends,” according to science.
The wishful thinker in me considers the study to be a flimsy attempt to objectify the subjective. The other part of me intoxicated by the double whammy of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin and Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac believes the science journal's brutal evidence may be on to something. Side by side, Glazer's Scarlett Johansson-starring sci-fi trip and von Trier's 4-hour sex epic look like a Pollock and a Vermeer. But parse through Under the Skin's abstraction, devour Nymphomaniac's Socratic dialogue, and one finds a shared conceptual seedling: The predatory nature of man can never be suppressed.
Adapted from Michel Farber's novel of the same name, Under the Skin casts Johansson as “Laura,” an extraterrestrial being who arrives to Earth with a mission to collect human epidermises. With the help of a silent aide, Laura slips into the body of a gorgeous, deceased brunette, a facade used to lure unsuspecting men back to her home base. Her process is effortless: hit the streets of small town Scotland, either hovering around local hangouts or driving about in a creepy white van, entrance a man looking to “get some,” bring him home, strip down for maximum allure, then lead him to a watery grave.
Laura repeats the process several times (sequences Johansson shot Borat-style, attracting actual Scottish men as hidden cameras caught her tactics), leaving emotion at the door. Or, she hopes to leave it behind. In one scene, the alien watches from afar as a potential target attempts to rescue a drowning father and son. No one makes it. Laura leaves nearly as blank-faced as she arrived. But there's a spark behind her eyes, an inkling of empathy. An encounter with an Elephant Man-esque man fans the fire. The deformed twentysomething is so virginal, he's never touched a woman. Laura gives him the chance. When it comes time to plop him into her black stasis bath, she hesitates.
“Love distorts things,” laments Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the Nymphomaniac of the title. “Love is something you haven't asked for. The erotic was something I asked for, even demanded, from men.” Like Laura, Joe is drawn to sexuality early in life. She doesn't need to understand its intricacies to exploit it for stimulation. By the time she's a teenager, Joe is scavenging for sex much like the intrepid alien (minus the vacuuming-her-lover's-insides part). As a teenager, she competes against a friend to see which girl can screw the most men on a train from one town to another. When she's older, she seizes her salacious glow form sexual bonds with various men, all fulfilling a purpose. Morally questionable? Maybe — but it's beyond taking advantage. Joe needs sex. And like Laura, emotion eventually ruptures her contented existence.
Joe and Laura's lives stumble down a slippery slope of nihilism. Defeat is inevitable; when it comes to sexuality and identity, human nature is poison. Under the Skin portrays it as pure mood. Accompanied by the jarring clash of stringed instruments, Laura silently awakens to the feelings that plague Earthings. At first there's hope — she meets a man who romances her. And then their fling turns towards carnal instincts, aggression, and a type of intrusion that yanks Laura's life out of her hands. With her guard down, Glazer turns the world around her into pure chaos. Men who claim to help her only reveal themselves as deviants ready to destroy her. Since she's wearing someone else's skin, the director can show a man literally ripping Laura apart.
Glazer's approach relies heavily on visuals to build a sense of dread. It's engrossing, but can only dig so deep. With a more direct approach, von Trier scraps magnificence for philosophical postulating. As Joe tells the story of her life to well-read intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), he responds with metaphoric understanding and lines of questioning meant to boil down her nymphomania into a fixable problem. The deviations are playful at first. But by the film's second half (Volume II, as its been broken up in America), Joe's sexual identity spirals into crisis. She can no longer feel pleasure. She's condemned by the traditional, chauvinistic Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), the only partner she's opened up to romantically. She goes on a sexual rampage, screwing anyone that enters her crosshairs. She resorts to hiring a “dom” in hopes BDSM maneuvers will stir up her spirit. Romance interferes.
Joe describes the perpetual turmoil in detail, with honest reflection. “I love my cunt, and my filthy, dirty lust,” she tells a sex addict therapy group that hope to correct her illness. In one of von Trier's most daring moves, Joe sympathizes with a pedophile for keeping his urges contained. The world has no room for that man's sexual instincts. Seligman listens closely to Joe's story. We learn through this conversation that he might be the first person to ever open his ears, eyes, and heart to this woman. It bites Joe in the ass.
The men of Under the Skin and Nymphomaniac could never be friends with Laura or Joe. At least not from the perspectives of Glazer or von Trier. Likewise, with blossoming and complicated sexuality in play, the two women could never escape victimhood. That condemnation is on us, the audience, too. The striking, fragile performances from Johansson and Gainsbourg hold a mirror to our own desires. For many, the frank nakedness of their natural beauty raises eyebrows. Are these films pornographic? Is von Trier exploiting Gainsbourg by depicting her screwing every which way? In Under the Skin, “ScarJo” fans question if the actress is as beautiful as Hollywood believed her to be. This is not a woman who can expose herself without consequences.
And that's our problem (especially for me and the other guys in the room). How do we restrain our “evolved mating strategies” to avoid impinging on friendship, or any female relationship, experiences? Wrestling with the dynamic filmmaking of Under the Skin and pointed rhetoric of Nymphomaniac is a start.
Under the Skin and Nymphomaniac Volume II arrive in theaters Friday, April 4. Nymphomanaiac Volume 1 is in theaters and on VOD now.