Film & TV

Venice Update: The Wordless Beauty and Brutality of Kim Ki-duk's Moebius and Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin

It's 8:20 and you're in the breakfast room at your hotel, having your customary bowl of muesli. By 9:20, you're watching a spurned wife cut off her teenage son's penis--and eat it--as retribution for her husband's infidelity. Ah, Tuesday. But wow, Kim Ki-duk's Moebius is some movie! If you have...
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It's 8:20 and you're in the breakfast room at your hotel, having your customary bowl of muesli. By 9:20, you're watching a spurned wife cut off her teenage son's penis--and eat it--as retribution for her husband's infidelity. Ah, Tuesday.

But wow, Kim Ki-duk's Moebius is some movie! If you have a low tolerance for castration, incest, gang rape, and rocks being used for autoerotic stimulation, you probably shouldn't see it. But as with all movies, particularly Kim's, it's largely the how and not the what that matters: Moebius is so gracefully made--and in places so very funny--that at times I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

But then, that's Kim's stock in trade; he's a strange one, all right. (His Pieta, controversial for its over-the-top violence and sexuality, won the Golden Lion here last year.) And yet somehow, the plot of Moebius, playing here out of competition, sounds stranger in the telling than it does while you're watching the movie. The picture opens with a bitterly funny wrestling match between a husband and wife (Cho Jae-hyun and Lee Eun-woo) over a ringing cell phone--it's the mistress calling, and the missus doesn't like it one bit. (Intriguingly, Lee plays both characters.)

After attempting and failing to sever her husband's penis with some sort of sacrificial knife that the family keeps stored under a Buddha's head in the living room--where else?--she moves on to her impromptu Plan B, thus ruining her son's life. (Or so it would seem.) This act of vengeance is followed by an instance of parental sacrifice that's both horrifying and grimly hilarious, which pretty much sums up the shifting tones of Moebius. It could almost qualify as Kim's take on Pedro Almodóvar, though unlike Almodóvar, he doesn't temper his perversion with human warmth.

Did I mention that there's not a word of dialogue in the movie? There's sound--grunting, moaning, cries of dismay--but it's so restrained it almost seems to be shimmering beneath the picture's surface, like fish bubbles rising to the top of the water. In a wordless world, images and gestures mean more, and Kim takes great care with his: They're definitive and potent, almost like pantomime. Moebius isn't particularly graphic, but it's not for the faint of heart. Relentlessly, Kim plucks away at certain visual notes--a knife's handle sticking out of a shoulder blade, a patch of skin being rubbed raw and bloody. You kind of wish he would stop, but you understand why he doesn't: In a movie about obsessions, his obsessiveness is a way of keeping order.

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, screening here in competition, explores sexual obsession of another sort: Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, an alien disguised as a human being, tooling through Scotland in a van. She picks up random men and lures them to their doom.

Maybe that all sounds rather ordinary. But in Glazer's hands, it isn't. Under the Skin--adapted from Michel Faber's novel of the same name--is Glazer's first film since the odd little supernatural romance Birth nearly 10 years ago; it's an even stranger film, and a better one. Johansson's character has arrived from outer space--we know this because Glazer opens the movie with a glowing orb, a kind of shorthand signifying a planet far, far away. Her Earth garb consists of tight stonewashed jeans and a tatty fur coat; her hair is a dark, tousled mop. She looks like a tough girl out for some fun, but when she picks up her conquests, she asks them questions about themselves in soothing, seductive tones. Every man she encounters is up for whatever she's offering, but woe betide the sailor who heeds her siren's call.

What does she do to them, exactly? We don't really know, but it's not pretty, and Glazer stages these seductions magnificently: Suddenly, the craggy landscape of Scotland--a very weird place in itself--gives way to a lake of what appears to be black oil. We see Laura stripping down as she walks, barefoot, across the top of this sinister sea, beckoning the captive male of the moment to follow her. But while she glides and sways on the surface, the men are pulled under. By the time she's stripped herself totally and gloriously bare--she's like an Eadweard Muybridge nude, aglow like the moon--the man unlucky enough to walk in her wake has been swallowed whole. It's as if she has consumed him in some primordial swirl of sex that requires no physical contact.

Laura goes through one man after another, until one of them touches a seemingly human nerve in her. She never voices the thought, but we can see her wondering: Would it be possible for her to live as a human? To feel desire, and make real love with a man instead of destroying him? The movie becomes less sinister and more about some unnamable longing; it's helped along by an astonishing, sonorous score by the young English songwriter, composer, and performer Mica Levi, which is hypnotic and threatening at once.

And Johansson, always a likable and fully alive presence, is extraordinary here. She appears to be all eyes, not just undressing her male victims with her gaze but virtually peeling their skin away. She's spooky and erotic, a girl who fell to Earth and decided that she might like to stay.

* * *

I write this on my last night in Venice, a place that always makes me wistful, especially right before I have to leave: I'm always homesick for it in advance. A few evenings ago I was crossing Piazza San Marco, a space so gorgeous and otherworldly that not even hordes of tourists can diminish its magic, when I heard a song that I love, being played by one of the mini-orchestras set up outside the cafés that dot the perimeter of the square. I usually don't pay these musicians much mind; it's tourist stuff, your average random Vivaldi or whatever. But this was a pop song, one that always inspires in me a mix of joy and longing that somehow seems very Venetian: "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," a hit for Dusty Springfield in 1966.

I've always loved Dusty's version of the song, but what I didn't know--and which I learned thanks to the wonders of Google--is that the melody was co-written by the marvelous cinema composer Pino Donaggio, a Venetian himself. The song's original name, with lyrics in Italian, is "Io che non vivo," and in 1965, Donaggio, a singer-songwriter at the time, made it a hit in Italy. Of course, the mini-orchestra would know this--leave it to the clueless American tourist to have to look it up on Google. But now I know that a song I've loved since I was a little girl has Venetian roots. And that makes it easier for me to say arrivederci.

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