The Shocking Movie That Had Critics Fleeing Venice Film Fest Theaters

Plus: Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress, the real Lance Armstrong, and a slippery interview with Iraq War architect Donald Rumsfeld.
Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human form in Under the Skin. (Film4)

It’s fairly common at film festivals: that moment during a press screening when handfuls of critics make a beeline for the exit.

Sometimes it’s because a movie is boring, or a deadline is looming, or the journalist has an interview scheduled.

And very occasionally, it’s because penises are being amputated onscreen.

Such was the case with Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius, screened out of competition on Tuesday, in which the severing of private parts is only one of various grotesque acts committed (there’s also incest and gang rape).

The latest from the filmmaker whose Pieta won this festival’s top prize last year is a sort of perversely tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale about the cycles of violence triggered when a mother cuts off her son’s “manhood” in a misdirected rage over the father’s adultery.

In what I assume is meant to be a formal gamble, the film is dialogue-free—though there are more than enough shrieks, howls and moans to fill the silence.

Moebius is sordid, yet—need I say it?—never dull. Kim, who notably made the quiet, meditative Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, about a Buddhist monk and his protégé, keeps the dysfunction flowing at a steady pace. He also comes up with one truly original scene of coitus, in which the handle of a knife plunged into the protagonist’s shoulder serves as a substitute phallus for his missing organ.

Moebius is sort of like a car accident: it induces queasiness (South Korea will release a censored version), but it’s hard to look away.

That said, Kim’s provocations may leave you wondering why, exactly, he put you through it all—or, more unsettling still, why you stayed until the end.

Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress
One of the most divisively received competition entries was Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s sometimes hypnotically beautiful, sometimes monotonous sci-fi experiment, in which Scarlett Johansson plays a comely alien seducing and destroying various men across Scotland.

The film features sequences of chilly wonder, the director framing his star’s pale, iridescent face against darkness as she lures her victims toward a mysterious, tar-colored pool that sucks them in and drowns them. Johansson, sporting a black wig, British accent and longing in her eyes, glides through the movie with an alluring blend of sensuality and vulnerability.

But Under the Skin is ultimately a bit too enamored of its own elusiveness. Glazer (who has several music videos and two fine feature films, Sexy Beast and the underrated Birth, under his belt) wisely avoids imposing meaning on his images, yet the movie seems so intent on remaining obscure that I ended up suspecting there wasn’t much beneath its seductive surface.

The film also flirts with lethargy in its middle section, when Johansson’s encounters with the male species start piling up somewhat redundantly.

Under the Skin is a semi-abstract mood piece, but I wish it were a tighter, tauter one.

American power pursued and misused
Meanwhile, a pair of documentaries put two controversial high-profile US figures in the hot seat.

Presented by

Jon Frosch is a film critic for FRANCE 24 based in Paris. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Village Voice, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.

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