Glasgow Film Festival: Under the Skin | The Past

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Jonathan Glazer’s audacious piece of cinema closes the festival in style

The tenth Glasgow Film Festival draws to a close this weekend with the Scottish premiere of Under the Skin (*****), Jonathan Glazer’s magnificently creepy and defiantly oddball adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel of the same name. I’ve covered the film in a lot of detail already on these pages (and will be doing so again when it goes on general release in two weeks), but Glazer’s decision to hone Faber’s Scottish-set story to focus more intensely on Scarlett Johansson’s siren-like alien, inset, as she undergoes a sort of abstract awakening while roaming the streets of Glasgow and beyond makes for an audacious piece of cinema – one that combines to intriguing and unsettling effect the full force of Glazer’s visual imagination with a kind of vérité approach that grounds the esoteric story in the here and now.

Scarlett Johansson in a still from Under the Skin. Picture: YouTube

Scarlett Johansson in a still from Under the Skin. Picture: YouTube

Exploring the here and now, and how it’s frequently shaped and imprisoned by what has come before, is very much where Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi likes to operate as a dramatist. Following 2009’s About Elly and his astonishing 2012 Oscar-winner, A Separation, his new film, The Past (****), may be set in France as opposed to his home country, but it’s a natural extension of his previous work exploring the way tradition and modernity clash. Receiving its Scottish premiere at the festival today, it revolves around Maria (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo), a Frenchwoman attempting to settle her affairs with her estranged Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mousaffa) so she can start afresh with her new partner Samir (Tahar Rahim).

The film begins with Ahmad’s arrival from Paris to sign the divorce papers, but it soon transpires that Marie’s new relationship is already under strain from the emotional repercussions of a tragedy that has befallen Samir’s own wife eight months earlier – a strain that Ahmad’s presence can’t help but intensify. In other hands, the convoluted, incident-heavy nature of the plot might have drifted into melodrama, but Farhadi and his cast eschew histrionics, peeling layer upon layer away to explore in detail how romantic and familial relationships are frequently haunted by past mistakes for which there’s not always an easy way to atone.

The past was very much haunting the screen earlier this week when Dutch director George Sluizer arrived at the festival to present the first British screening of Dark Blood (****), the film he was shooting with River Phoenix when the young star died of a drug overdose nearly 21 years ago. A poignant reminder of Phoenix’s talent, the film is a fascinating curio, Sluizer’s decision to replace never-shot scenes with freeze-frames and story linking narration adding a weirdly compelling edge that enhances the oddball, fractured story of a part-Hopi Indian widower (Phoenix) who comes to the aid of a couple (Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis) when they break down in the desert. As his relationship with this bickering pair takes strange and destructive turns, the story may occasionally wear its metaphorical significance as a comment on the impact of white settlers on Native Americans a little heavily, but as the half-mad recluse at the story’s centre, Phoenix turns what could have been a one-note kook into a fascinating and beguiling character in his own right.

And on the subject of one-note kooks, Michel Gondry’s new film Mood Indigo (**) serves as a reminder that a little of his irreverent, whimsical, hand-made filmmaking style goes a very long way. Starring Audrey Tautou as a woman with a flower growing in her lungs, it’s kind of a fabulist terminal illness saga, made unbearable by Gondry’s relentlessly over-cooked style. Reality check please.

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