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.
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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.

Errol Morris’ competition entry The Unknown Known finds the renowned documentarian interviewing former US Secretary of Defence and architect of the Iraq War Donald Rumsfeld.

It’s a sequel of sorts to Morris’s shattering Fog of War (2003)—about former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and his stewardship of the Vietnam War—though the new film, as artful and absorbing as it is, suffers by comparison.

Part of the problem is the man in the spotlight. While McNamara proved a subject of considerable candor and reflectiveness, Rumsfeld is ever the steely, slippery denier, brushing off uncomfortable questions and punctuating many of his statements with a that’s-all-folks smile.

Morris, who seems to be in less tenacious form than usual, is left to cover what is by now extremely familiar ground: Rumsfeld talks us through his contention that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the revelations of torture in Abu Ghraib and his eventual “resignation” from the Bush administration.

More interesting is the background stuff—archive footage, audio recordings, photos and Rumsfeld’s own recollections—about the politician’s rise through the DC ranks, from Congressman to advisor and NATO ambassador under Nixon to wannabe running mate for Reagan.

What emerges is a portrait of a relentless careerist with a talent for bending the truth to suit his own purposes.

Though it doesn’t go very far or deep, Morris has crafted The Unknown Known expertly, using Rumsfeld’s memos (read aloud by the man himself) as a framing device while Danny Elfman’s terrific score brings out the drama inherent in the story of American power pursued and misused.

Lying Lance
Another serial truth bender, Lance Armstrong, is the focus of Alex Gibney’s detailed and engaging documentary, The Armstrong Lie, which screened out of competition.

Gibney (who made 2006 Oscar nominee Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) plunges the viewer into the doped-up world of cycling—and the life of the fallen hero at its centre—with energy and perhaps a tad too much diligence; at 122 minutes, the movie plays a bit like a thoroughly researched, skillfully assembled term paper that could have used one last edit.

Armstrong, though, is a fascinating screen object: a dashing egomaniac, by turns likeable and snide, who seems to be clinging to the idea of himself as a wronged warrior. The man captured here indeed comes off as a master marketer, not so much genuinely regretful about his drug use and dishonesty as mildly annoyed that his brand is no longer trusted.

Gibney’s own conflicted feelings toward Armstrong—awe and admiration mingled with a true fan’s fury at being duped—make for a compellingly nuanced depiction.

I do wish the director had resisted explicitly articulating his opinion of his subject via voiceover at the end of his film—a gratuitous touch. Still, The Armstrong Lie offers a vivid look at a sport in a state of moral rot, and the man who fooled us into believing he was above it all.

A versions of this post also appears on France 24, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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