Your daughter turns to you and asks inquisitively: “Beloved parent, why is that Scottish man raping the female protagonist?”
This will almost certainly not happen if you take your daughter to see Maleficent. Unless she is a budding feminist scholar. But for a moment or two, you’ll fear it will. Disney has done a great job of creating a family film that will seem vaguely menacing to children, without them having the context to know quite why; while seeming absolutely menacing to parents (and non-child-toting adults like myself) for very concrete and obvious reasons. Those reasons being that men suck.
In reality, men’s attitude towards strong women often sucks quite heinously. And some men are exceptionally despicable, shining a bad light on all men. Ball up those subtleties and toss them aside; in this film’s fantasy world, men always suck, unless they are transformed birds or too young to know quite how to suck yet. Young men may talk of true love and think they mean it. They may make gestures that melt a young girl’s heart. But just wait. Those aren’t men yet, they are boys. When the opening narration sneers at the world of men that abuts the beautiful, egalitarian fairy kingdom, it really means the world of men. The world of iron, corruption, and metaphorical rape and mutilation. The film’s message is simplistic, but in its single-mindedness, it’s effective.
Fit to burst with fairly heady ideas, this feminist revision of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was clearly written in the room next to the room they made Frozen in – too bad the filmmakers didn’t kidnap a visual artist or two from that animated masterpiece to help their CGI spectacular look even half as good as it feels, or even an eighth as good as the film they’re doing a spin on looked. Sleeping Beauty looked like a tapestry; Maleficent, with silly creatures and uncanny valley pushing fairies that stretch incredulity, looks like a tie-dye T-shirt. Many people have told me they think this film is gorgeous, and I really want to hear them out, but I struggle to stifle a “Wha?”
In spite of this, the film nestles into Angelina Jolie’s iconic performance, which nurtures everything around her, helping it grow into something verging on the profound. Jolie, who plays out the harrowing tale of a woman (far, far more than) scorned, has been inordinately discerning about her film roles since Mr. and Mrs. Smith (she hasn’t been in a film for years, and mostly directs now), and it’s easy to see what drove Jolie from semi-retirement so that she could cackle in prosthetic cheekbones. While Maleficent may seem silly (and often, thanks to poor CGI, inane comedic relief in the form of the good fairies, and bad dialogue, is silly), it frequently manages to strike the perfect balance of meaningful pop art. It carries weight, at least when Jolie is enacting her roughly sketched arc: from carefree wood nymph to vengeful demon who could… not… care… less to caring fairy godmother. Along the way, Jolie has many standout scenes – her traumatized reaction to her love’s betrayal, her wry reaction to young Aurora, and her tearful bedside monologue standout in particular. She is Maleficent – defining the movie and redefining the uber-Disney villainess in intriguing ways that, frankly, it’s hard to believe the Disney studio thought wise.
Maleficent stands out most when it leaves its source material far behind and does its own thing – in this film Aurora is asleep for about fifteen minutes and the endings of this film and Sleeping Beauty don’t exactly match up in the “who dies?” department. That divergence is worth it for scenes like the one in which Prince Phillip is bullied into kissing a girl he just met by the fairies, who immediately grow angry when it’s proven Phillip isn’t Aurora’s true love because he made googly eyes at her one time (the only truly funny thing these three actresses do in the movie). Is the film’s incredulous attitude towards the breakneck pace at which Disney heroines fall in love straight out of Frozen? Yes. But it’s amusing in its own right, and leads to strong emotional payoffs while strengthening themes of motherhood and sisterhood. The film only truly falters in the spacious throne room of the truly maleficent King Stephan, a former paramour of the once-winged fairy. The inciting party scene is lifted almost wholesale from Sleeping Beauty, to its extraordinary detriment, and it’s the only scene in the film where Jolie plays anything resembling the true evil one might expect from Disney’s most fearsome villain in her own spinoff film. It’s also the last time that Sharlto Copley’s mad king plays anything resembling sympathetic. From that point on Copley is pitched at hysterical, essentially frothing at the mouth; it’s clear it is guilt that eats away at him, guilt he’s earned for action he might, in his heart, regret; but it’s the wrong performance for this movie.
Maybe the Sleeping Beauty story wasn’t quite right for this film either; I find myself wondering whether the film would have worked without the brand reinvention overlay; an original tale about a beautiful fairy corrupted by a greedy man would have done nicely (the one thoughtful grace note our familiarity with story adds is that, rather than attacking the man who did her wrong, Maleficent attacks an innocent woman to lash out at him). But it’s just hopeful thinking; we stand at the precipice of what appears to be countless live-action reinventions of animated classics, and Maleficent exists first as an extension of Disney’s brand identity, and only after that as a fascinating if limited feminist text. I’ll allow the first aspect if only because the second aspect intrigues me so.
Your daughter turns to you and asks inquisitively: “Beloved parent, why is that Scottish man raping the female protagonist?”
This will definitely happen if you take your daughter to see Under the Skin. Do not bring your daughter to see Under the Skin! Unless she is quite advanced in age and temperament.
But you should go see it. (If you are yourself advanced in age and temperament.) As soon as you can get your hands on it, this eerie science fiction gem is required viewing.
I bring this up because of the remarkable similarities between Jonathan Glazer’s tone poem, about a mysterious woman who abducts leering men and… does things… to them, and Disney’s Maleficent. Watch one and it’s like seeing the other’s mirror image.
In Under the Skin, our unnamed protagonist – played with steely distance by Scarlett Johansson, having one of those years that turn screen stars into screen legends – starts not as an innocent victim but as the perpetrator; as a literal monster. Unabashedly so. One scene on a picturesque beach will leave you wanting to glare daggers at Johansson – not just the character she plays, but the actress. How could she?!
A science fiction-horror film to its core, the film features a character who views rural Scotland from an immense remove. She is a predator monitoring its prey before it pounces, a lioness in tall grass amongst gazelles bent at a watering hole.
I could try and outline what happens for you to give you a better idea of what you’re in for, which would be a mild spoiler, but I would only do a great disservice to the film, honestly; I’m not entirely certain what I was seeing either. You will never see a narrative film with less exposition. There is none. No old lady narrating the goings-on, no scene where anyone’s motivations are broken down or rationalized. You are expected to play catch-up the entire time. It’s a fun if sometimes frustrating game.
Suffice it to say that Johansson’s character is prowling specifically for men; vulnerable Scotsmen who would get into a strange van with a woman who looks like Scarlett Johansson. (Note: this is a high percentage of Scotsmen.) The first forty minutes or so mostly show Johansson stopping men to ask for directions and, once a comfort level is established, for certain personal details. Any family waiting up for you? Heading to meet some friends? If her line of inquiry leads her to believe that no one will miss the man, than back to her place for some naked time.
Naked time with this character is not kosher. It is, in fact, one of the most traumatizing things you might ever see in a film. Shot in stark whites and blacks, it will sap the sweaty-palmed excitement out of any viewer who might be watching Under the Skin merely to check out a nude Johansson. That viewer will see what’s under the clothes – the skin – but also, as the title promises, what’s under the skin.
What does lie beneath the lust the male species shares for an actress like Johansson? As her victims blindly stumble towards her alluring figure completely unaware of the immense danger surrounding them, it becomes clear that this is the movie’s driving theme, the question on its mind. It’s why Glazer angled hard to have an A-Lister like Johansson star in what is otherwise an exercise in avant-garde filmmaking featuring not a single other recognizable face. It’s likely that only Johansson or Jolie could have played this part. Johansson herself seems as alien to this milieu as her character does, and so we are in the right frame of mind to appreciate what is to come.
Under the Skin actually has one of the most fascinating making-of notes you’ll ever see: many of the men Johansson questions, and almost all the extras in the film, are actual Scottish pedestrians, living their day-to-day lives, unaware of the presence of either a famed actress or a camera crew. For certain pickup scenes, Johansson would stop the van and improvise a dialogue with her new passenger while hidden cameras shot the scene and the director, crew, and bodyguards sat in the back of the van and in surrounding vehicles.
This could be just a fascinating footnote, but it adds an actual note of poignancy to a film that often shows men on their best behavior. Glazer didn’t tell these unsuspecting lads to act respectfully or gentlemanly. This is really how they’d treat a lone female lost in Edinburgh. Do many of the men want to have intercourse with the attractive and mysterious woman who picked them up in a van? Sure, but it’s made clear none of them would do it without an immense amount of prodding and consent from her first. It adds to the horror when a certain number of themselves in a deliriously uncomfortable pickle.
Many of the more prominent male characters, obviously played by actors with scripts, back up this reading. A foreign surfer dude doesn’t give a second thought to putting his own life at risk to save a family, and pays dearly for it. A deformed young man enters the van, and the fact that Johansson’s character initially treats him like she might any other man scares him more than if she’d just reveal her true nature. This encounter wakes something in our cold, calculating protagonist, and a growing interest in the people surrounding her turns into a rebellion; she breaks from her mission and runs off to the foggy moors, hoping to learn more about humans, about sex, about, heck, cake. (She does not like cake.) There, she meets a kindly bearded bachelor who takes her in and, for much of her stay, may as well not even be aware she is a woman. When it becomes clear that there is a mutual attraction, he is so caring and tender towards her, one fears that a horrible fate must await this man as well.
In contrast to a one note (though still effective) parable like Maleficent, in which all men are greedy pricks or are too young to be greedy pricks quite yet, Under the Skin takes place in a world where things are more complex than that. It may be science fiction, emphasis on fiction, but some of those interactions actually take place in our world, in the same way that Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos do.
The film’s sexual politics are actually so fair to men that, for much of the run time, it seems to suggest we are dealing with the worst kind of maneater, a woman who seduces men who have done nothing in particular wrong and feeds on feelings they can’t help but feel – attraction, loneliness, desire. She turns so much of what we think about traditional sexual dynamics on their head, using the notion we have about the femme fatale who entraps men and then depositing all the power on her half of the playing field. Almost to the end, the film is so #notallmen about it’s scenario (vulnerable woman alone in a van) that it becomes uncomfortable watching the script ignore what we might expect to happen as it gives bachelor after bachelor a fair shake.
But the femme fatale learns how men operate, grows comfortable with them, even begins to pity them; they are not what she expected, maybe not what she’d been led to believe. The film grows from an intriguing but occasionally frustrating avant garde experiment into a truly poignant inquisition once she lets her guard down and cedes that predatory power, forming relationships that increasingly play as equal; but never one that leans more toward the male side.
Until the film’s climax, which manages to up the body horror in a film rife with images that will cause involuntary cringing. After the beach scene, the audience might have rooted for this horrific being to come to an end like this; but once it happens, we feel we know this unknowable thing, and we might wish for a moment that she’d encountered this cretin of a man back when she had her fortress of horrors, where she’d have been able to turn his violent urges into his own demise.
If Maleficent suggests a bit to simply, “Yes ALL men,” Under the Skin holds forth for a shocking amount of time “No, not all men,” before pointing out traumatically: “But some men… Some men, for sure…”