Monday, July 14, 2014

Under the Skin

By Sati. Monday, July 14, 2014 , , , , , , ,

 (spoilers!)

Let me preface this by saying that I did like the movie a lot. Unfortunately, since I am familiar with book material there's going to be a lot of 'oh, what could have been!' talk here.

It's been a year, more or less, since I read Michel Faber's terrific novel Under the Skin. Since I don't have much time to read fiction, I don't spend my time with books that often. The main reason I usually do is because there is a movie in the works based on the novel and it sounds amazing. So what happens is I read the book, I love it and then I see the movie. And it's not the right way to go. At all.

There are some books that are unfilmable and Under the Skin is most definitely one of them. I cannot agree with people saying that Jonathan Glazer proved those who say it's impossible to adapt the novel wrong. He didn't. Under the Skin may share most of main plot points with the book, but it's not really an adaptation. It's more a film inspired by the book, illustration of its atmosphere, but one that isn't sharing most of the substance with the source material.

Ironically, as well as this movie works as a stand alone science fiction film, there is a great tragedy in Glazer making this movie the way he did - the best thing about the novel was how thought provoking it was. Because this movie was made it's very unlikely we will get another adaptation any time soon, that would actually focus on what was the most shocking and affecting part of the novel - the reason for the protagonist's quest and forcing you to step into her shoes (that is if you aren't vegetarian).
Much like Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, Under the Skin focuses on just one theme from the rich and complex novel and what it does, mostly, is capture the atmosphere of the story as a whole. The film focuses on the search of identity of the protagonist, nameless alien who appears completely numb to the people around her. She drives around luring men to her car and then leads them to her apartment where they....

Exactly, what happens there?

In the book Isserley (which is her name) was sent to Earth to collect men. They were then castrated and fattened in pens and slaughtered like pigs - their meat is a delicacy on Isserley's home planet. The movie cleverly managed to capture the essence of the mood surrounding those scenes - by showing us one of the victims witnessing horrifying fate of the previous one, with its insides sucked into the void, leaving a hollow skin suit. Then we saw meat being send in some sort of red signal, which most likely went completely unnoticed by non book readers, but for those familiar with the novel was a nice little nod.
And that's essentially what bugged me about the movie - it's a nod, not a depiction - you have the atmosphere but it doesn't work as well without all the substance and all the background story. In the book in the most chilling scene Isserley sees one of the mutilated men write the word MERCY on the ground and small acts of kindness among the doomed men towards each other. In the film the equivalent of that is the new victim touching the hand of the other. It's not nearly as powerful, moving or affecting, it's just the abstract reading of the novel which really doesn't work this well. As impossible some of the aspects of the book would be to translate on the screen (mainly the look of the aliens), I wish they would have stayed closer to the novel in depicting the victims' fate.

Still, for those unfamiliar with the book story this worked. But where the film truly fails is in portraying the search for herself of the protagonist. In the book Isserley was mutilated to look like a human - half of her body was hacked off (you can see the depiction of her alien race here). Her vagina is basically a hollow replica and it doesn't work. In the book we have her discover gradually that she is just an imitation who will never be completely human, never really become a woman and ever truly belong, in the film we get Scarlet Johansson shine a light on her privates. Literally. With a lamp.

The switch from her doing what she does to becoming more human is clumsily portrayed in the movie. The whole story with deformed man and her freeing him is quite incomprehensible. Glazer had something there, in place - showing her desensitized reaction to baby on the beach and then children being present in many scenes. But he didn't focus on that. He went with the other story and I for one didn't understood any of protagonist motivation here. It's a shame too, as Isserley does notice the children around her in the movie and Glazer really could have used that horrific beach scene as the point of her transformation, given how it's the most powerful moment of the movie.


I think he completely misunderstood the novel - the reason for Isserley becoming more human and appreciating our race is her witnessing the small things, the potential in humanity, the fact that we have intelligence, the fact that we can be kind. It's not an oddity, a deformed man, the outsider of human race that moves her, it's her own discovery of what it means to be human as a species.

The baby scene is another issue - in the book, as far as I can recall, Isserley saw a dead animal on the beach. Here the baby's story is so horrific and exaggerated it completely prevented me from feeling for her character. She is almost raped and then burned alive in the end. But why should I care? Humans as species care for the young of other species - if you saw a small puppy, alone, you'd help him. She doesn't do that. That's monstrous. That shows her species has no empathy. While it was also true in the novel, the scene with the baby is so shocking it goes far and beyond what one can endure and forgive, leaving no chance for you to feel for this creature.

Because of that scene I was left completely cold. In the book watching Isserley slowly becoming more human, having all those doubts, feeling satisfaction at seeing a man mutilated after another man almost raped her - that all made her a rich character, sometimes even a very innocent one when she was discovering things for the first time. So when in the end she commits suicide because she is injured and trapped and - she cannot be discovered, taken to the hospital for tests, because of who she is - it makes you feel for her unlike in the movie.
Another issue - in the books and I think in general with these alien stories - it is so frightening because these creatures are so much smarter than we are. Isserley never does really stupid things and if she does she recognizes them as such being mad at herself - that's the book. In the movie we see her fall asleep alone in the woods. Just what kind of an idiot is she, exactly? She saw that men are dangerous, previously in the movie, when they were trying to break into her van. Glazer wants to make us feel for her as if she was a child - but he previously shows her doing terrible things and witnessing things that should make her know better than to place herself in certain situations. That's a contradiction and one of the things that makes the second part of the movie so much weaker than the first.

The film, while it fails as the adaptation of the book story almost completely, does something admirable and that is capturing the scenes from the novel in the form of shots, music and overall mood of scenes - the ending of the novel has Isserley rejoice at the fact she would be one with the nature in death - in the film you have wonderful long shot in the end of her ashes flying up to the sky. It's a scene so surreal and well made that it almost makes you forget the last 30 minutes leading up to it were not on par with the rest of the film.

While the film fails to show you her strong connection to the nature, it's amazing how far one shot can go - and that is the image of sleeping Isserley merged with the image of the forest. The whole visual side of the film is not only magnificent but sometimes it actually helps to communicate big parts of the story and that takes a lot of talent and skill.
While the film was very disappointing as an adaptation (I don't think it even has the right to use the words 'based on', they should have gone with 'inspired by') it's a mesmerizing piece of standalone science fiction - it's such a voyeuristic adventure, where we basically follow this strange creature every step of the way. We see her arrive, adapt and die. And while it didn't make me feel anything it was a splendid cinematic experience.

Perhaps the film leaving me so cold fits this story and the way it was shown - in a surreal, detached, very minimalistic way. Much like the heroine we are forced to experience this hollow, strange world and sometimes react to it in a matter as puzzled as her own. Even the very beginning doesn't make you feel, it just forces you to watch - in astonishing sequence we see what we can only assume is the creation of the protagonist's eye.

There is actually a great focus on her eyes here, almost suggesting this is the thing that makes her experience our world the most - in a puzzling sequence, a person who I can only refer to as her supervisor, stares into her eyes as if looking for a clue that perhaps she adapted too much and it's time for her to go.

I appreciate that Glazer added all those small mysteries and odd little moments, further distinguishing this piece from the source novel. He also completely altered the look of the alien in the end, while again, the book ending worked better, it was a curious irony in the movie that Isserley died a lot like her own victims - helpless and in horrific circumstances.

While direction and cinematography are incredible the main two stars of the movie are Scarlett Johansson and Mica Levi. Johansson is perfectly cast and it's not because she is beautiful. For me - she isn't. I think she is a very attractive woman but her face is not proportional nor is it particularly striking, which is perfect because Isserley was modeled after the magazine pictures of women - she is made into what men desire and it's often noted by the hitchhikers that she is quite odd looking. Judging from the response to this movie, and I'm not sure whether it's Scarlett's voice, the way she moves or her body - men would follow her into that car even if she told them what would happen to them. Even if she told them the book version, probably. It's something about her. She is the perfect bait.

This is definitely Johansson's best work, on par with Her. She is just so convincing as someone who is trying to imitate a human being. The quick changes on her face - from fake smile to the look of annoyance as it becomes clear this particular man won't follow her, to the look of complete confusion at the sight of blood, her performance is amazing. She switches effortlessly from being childlike in one scene to her being a cold predator in the other.
The last 40 minutes of the movie is much worse than the first half, mostly because of the weak script failing to portray the protagonist's reasons and feelings but Johansson is still bringing in her A game. I also have to note how courageous that performance is - it's not even about the lack of lines (the film is so gripping, though, you don't even notice how little dialogue there is) or her having all those nude scenes. It's about how dangerous it was to film.

The men she picks up were not actors. The film was shot often with the use of hidden cameras with Johansson basically driving around talking to strangers. That she wasn't recognized is a miracle, but there is also a profound sense of relief the petite actress wasn't attacked at any point of the filming. I only hope she had a bodyguard nearby at all times.

As tremendous as the visual side and her performance is, the glue that holds it all together is Mica Levi's haunting, otherworldly score which really pulls you right in the creepy atmosphere of the story. It is by far the finest, most detailed work by composer I heard in a very long time and without it the movie wouldn't work half as well.

As much as I wish the film would follow the novel more closely, which would most likely result in a terrific piece of science fiction and horror, Under the Skin is certainly a unique experience carried by Johansson's fearless performance and the atmosphere that you won't be able to forget for quite a while after seeing the film. Unlike the novel it doesn't make you think - but it makes you experience the story on some sort of surreal, subconscious, primal level. And that's way more than most movies do nowadays.

44 comments:

  1. Brilliant review! This is my personal favourite film of the year so far, I thought that it was absolutely perfect (even though the baby scene scarred me terribly). I must try to get a copy of the book, it seems great :) And I must say, your edits are just beautiful! How long did it take you to do all of them?

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    1. Thank you! The book is so much better, it's so gripping and well written, I read it in one day.

      Most of Sunday evening :) I have lots of practice now, it used to take me so long just to make one gif now it's just a moment :) But review images usually take some time to make.

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  2. AMAZING review, Margaret! It's interesting to get the perspective from someone who read the book, because I probably would have completely different emotions if I had read the novel. You make a good point here:

    "Because this movie was made it's very unlikely we will get another adaptation any time soon, that would actually focus on what was the most shocking and affecting part of the novel - the reason for the protagonist's quest and forcing you to step into her shoes"

    I thought a lot about that while watching it, and the gaps were somewhat noticeable to me. I knew something was lacking, but I still enjoyed what Glazer had to offer.

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    1. Thank you!! :)

      I swear whatever book I read turns into the source bitter frustration when I watch adaptations. I sincerely hope that Gone Girl movie is decent.

      It seems that those who read the novel could pick up those small puzzling details and fill it in with book story but those who didn't attribute those to some abstract way of creating the atmosphere. As an experience the film definitely works, I just with it worked as adaptation too.

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  3. Brilliant review! I haven't read the book, but I really need to. I did find that most of the things you saw as hinted at but never fully developed to be well developed, for what the film was. I prefer a film like this, that alludes and allows us to fill in the gaps, than one that hits us over the head with everything we are supposed to notice.

    I need to read the book though, so that I can do a comparison as well.

    Your images are amazing, BTW.

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    1. Thanks! The book is just brilliant, one of the best sci-fi novels I read.

      The thing is that they completely changed the story and what was the core of it - even with everything you read in the novel there were still things you didn't see, alluded to. It's as if it's a 3 level building, the movie has one level, with small windows to 2nd one, but the existence of 3rd isn't even hinted in the film, like it was in the book.

      They were fun to make, even the vagina one :)

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  4. For me, this is one of the best films that I have seen in the theaters. I was just stunned by not just its premise (which definitely borrows elements of The Man Who Fell to Earth but add something very chilling and cold as I think this is Scarlett's best work and certainly confirmation that she is one of the more underrated actresses working today. I also love Mica Levi's score as well as the sound design of Johnnie Burns as it adds to the eerie tone of the film.

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    1. I really need to listen to that score separately, the music in that almost sex scene was so gorgeous.

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  5. Beautiful graphics you've got here, Sati! I avoid reading your spoiler part, but I'm curious to see this one. A haunting score certainly helps make it more atmospheric and creepy. Sounds like a bravura role for Johansson, she's been having a tremendous few years. I wonder if she's gonna get nominated for this come award season.

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    1. Thank you! I don't think it will come anywhere near big awards, it's a highly....unique movie :)
      Very unpleasant at times too.

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  6. Great review - as someone who hasn't read the book, I think I definitely came at the film with a lot less to go off. Thanks for outlining the discrepancies between book and film. ScarJo certainly was great, but I don't think the film was perfect by any stretch. It's good, but having seen it I can't say I'd rush out to see it again.

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    1. Thank you! The book is much better, you should check it out!

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  7. This really is a great review. I saw this last week and while even I would say that this was one of the best movie watching experiences I had, while it was quite different but still kept me interested till the end, there were many things in the film that I wasn't exactly sure of. I assumed then that they were used to keep us viewers intrigued about strangeness of her routine, of her existence etc. e.g. I wasn't sure why is she picking these men and what happens after we see their meat and blood being sucked off them? Your review makes lot of those things clearer.

    I will try to get hold of this book. You certainly have me intrigued. :)

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    1. Thank you! I'm glad I could make things a bit clearer here, because I don't think anyone could get that just from the film, it's a real shame they didn't follow the book more closely here as it's just so thought provoking, I highly recommend reading it!

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  8. Great review! It's really interesting reading about this film from someone who is familiar with the book. I've been meaning to read it for a while, but reading this I'm glad I saw the film first as I really hate being disappointed by an adaptation.

    As everyone else said, you edits are gorgeous!

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    1. Thanks! You should definitely check out the book, it's fantastic!

      Thank you! :)

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  9. A great review. And I love how you referred to the film as a sort of primal experience. That's such a perfect way to describe it. I bought the book a few months ago, but still haven't gotten around to reading it. I remember Glazer saying his film was very different, but I'm glad you were able to separate the two. I'm really curious to dive into the text now.

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    1. Thank you! I think the book is vastly superior, but most books tend to be comparing to movies based on them. At least Glazer tried to capture some of its spirit, so that's admirable.

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  10. Excellent review! Since you turned me on to the book, I've been waiting for you to review this one for a long time. I'm disappointed to hear that the Mercy scene isn't included. (And also that they don't say her name is Isserley, mainly because I'm not sure if I was ever pronouncing it right in my head) I'm glad to hear it works as a stand alone sci fi movie though. That's good, at least. Can't wait to get this one from Netflix!

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    1. Thank you! It's a good movie but it's better to leave any hopes of the novel truly being adapted before seeing it, the character is a bit different too, I don't know, she just seemed, ironically, more human in the book. Johansson is more robotic and her awakening isn't as well done as in the novel. She is still great and works in the context of the film but this is a much different character than Isserley in the book.

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  11. You convinced me too see this movie!
    I love science fiction and if you say that the score is good, then the score really is good!
    Love your reviews!

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    1. Thanks! :) It's a good sci-fi movie for sure, but it's very unusual and difficult to watch at times.

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    2. Difficult to watch? I think that GoT hardened me ;d

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    3. GoT is just sexposition here it's actually highly creepy, unsettling stuff :) The most unsettling thing about GoT is its writing :)

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  12. Didn't read you review because of the spoiler warning, but we're talking about this in the next episode of the podcast so I'm REALLY excited to watch it. Like the pictures!

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    1. Oh awesome, I'll need to listen to it!

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  13. Great review Sati. I don't know if I'm going to watch it, b/c of that particular disturbing sequence, but I really enjoyed reading your review.

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    1. Thank you! You can always just fast forward the scene! :)

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    2. That's true. I will have to be johnny on the spot with the fast fwd button.

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    3. The baby is in two scenes but once you see the beach you can fast forward it, the second scene is maybe a minute long but it's upsetting.

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  14. Great review! Think I'm gonna pick this up on Blu-ray soon as I'm dying to see what all the fuss is about! Very cool pictures too :)

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    1. Thanks! It's a very unique movie but it's definitely worth seeing for Scarlett's performance alone.

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  15. Great review and great work on the gifs! Agree the movie lacks the thought-provoking meat industry elements. We disagree about the deformed man, which I think is a powerful scene, interesting to me the way she doesn't have prejudice about beauty and ugliness (as a normal person might have)
    The screenplay is indeed a bit vague(some would argue that's a strength) ScarJo, the atmosphere, and soundtrack are all fantastic. You make a good point about the character sleeping alone in the woods, and the lack of motivation for doing this. The book character was smarter than that.

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    1. Thanks!

      I thought it was so simple and lacked imagination - the fact she would respond to deformed man because he is also an outsider etc. was just so easy and it lacked the complexity of book events where you could really see her changing gradually

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  16. Hey Sati!
    It is truly a relief to finally be able to read something not related to Game of Thrones on your blog. And I was really looking forward to this moment, since I enjoy your movie reviews a lot :)

    As for Under the Skin, I cannot agree with you more. Although at first I was slightly disappointed that the adaptation is so detached form the book, having finished the movie, I changed my mind completely. And I think that both the movie and the book should be treated as two separate entities, especially when it comes to Isserley, since in the book, she is a very different character, both internally and externally. All the same, her portray in the movie is highly intriguing and thought-provoking.
    When it comes to the pace of the movie, the visual side and the general atmosphere it was simply perfect. To me it was - Drive meets Essential Killing with a Sci-Fi twist - experience. The connection could not have been better.

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    1. Well, GoT is a big hobby of mine so it may not be a blog for you. There's been reviews published in recent months, I simply do not have the luxury of having enough time to see many films anymore.

      I'm not sure how one can separate films from books creators claim to based them on. I could never do that myself but it must be fun having that ability. Shame we won't see the novel translated more closely to film any time soon.

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    2. Sorry if what I've written sounded offensive, I didn't mean it that way. I respect and admire your passion for GoT, I simply don't watch it, that's why I always look forward to your movie reviews which I like very much. I hope this does not make me a bad person ;)

      When it comes to the book and the movie being separate entities I think I have oversimplified the issue. In fact, I believe that reading the book beforehand made my movie experience much richer and more complete. And your analogies between the two are, in my opinion, spot on. Nonetheless, watching the movie, at times I had the feeling that the back story from the book that I was relying on wasn't applicable to the movie plot. Which, mind you, isn't a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact.

      I'm not sure if you agree with me, but I would call the movie an interpretation of the book, rather than an adaptation. And to tell you the truth, I'm glad that it is not the latter.

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    3. Well I don't really have time to review this much anymore, it's a bit more eventful in Oscar season.

      Well for me reading before watching the movie usually leads to disappointment, as adaptation this movie didn't work for me at all and I'd rather see a film that's faithful to the novel.

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  17. Lovely review! This is my favorite film of the year so far. Everything about it - the atmosphere, imagery, Johansson's performance, Levi's score - is so fascinating to me. It's an experience much like I had with Holy Motors, which I kept revisiting in my head, replaying the memorable scenes. I haven't read the book, but I'm a big fan of the film.

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    1. Thank you! I still haven't seen Holy Motors, it seems a bit too abstract for me.

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  18. I think Glazer was going for a very different reality altogether than the novel's, and repurposed Faber's consumerist metaphors into a conceit for sexual assault and predation. I don't usually post my work on other people's articles (so I apologize if it's rude), but I did get the chance to interview Faber about Glazer's adaptation earlier this year. I got a very different reaction than I expected: http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/an-interview-with-michel-faber-author-of-under-the-skin/

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  19. I tell you what, I didn't read the novel, although I did go over a summary of the whole book after checking out your review. I can't argue against Glazer focusing on only one theme - partly because you read the book and I didn't. But I also can't argue against it because that sounds like exactly the sort of thing that would happen. I can totally believe "Hollywood guy gets his hands on a rich story, condenses it down to just one of its major themes/messages."

    But we also got struck by scenes differently. It's possible - and I only suggest this because this is what happens to me sometimes - that the baby on the beach bothered you so much that it soured your overall opinion, & the lack of that one scene  would've improved your general opinion.

    To me, Dopple-Scarlett and her Biker of Doom just barely registered the baby's existence, of the outcome of it being alone and untended. So it wasn't this horrible "they killed a bay-bay!" scene, to me - it simply showed how helplessly ignorant these creatures are.

    I think it helped for me that Dopple-Scarlett bludgeoned a guy with a rock - why poach a person that she could have just waited for and seduced later? It's the same sort of ignorance that had her not recognize the soccor hooligans as a threat earlier, or had her speak to the deformed man, oblivious to the realities of his life. My theory is undermined by the fact that she releases him - which is still okay if it's because their conversation was actually somewhat deep, and more intellectual and emotional than the others. Yet that's a possibly convenient reading...

    And, similarly, I did feel sympathetic for her at the end of the movie. But the reason I felt sympathetic was that she was turning toward a different path, only to have some scumbag attempt to rape her, then follow it up with immolation of the alien creature - as if that piece of slime had much humanity in him. It's not stupidity, it's desperation: she made a choice to change (not clear what change, but still), she left to find someplace away from her "assignment," then found a refuge and took it. It's not stupid to not expect to get raped, with no overt sign of danger (like with the escalating evil of the hooligans).

    But my own take on this pic just went up, and you can have a field day with it. I will only conclude by agreeing that it's a shame that the success of this effort means that we won't get a more literal interpretation any time soon. And, yes, your image of a vulva diagram with Scarlett next to it is fucking genius. Made me spit out my drink when I saw it.

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    1. The baby scene didn't bother me to the point of it affecting my opinion of the movie. It was a scene with a purpose after all, unlike some cruel and sadistic scenes in for example Wes Anderson or Lars Von Trier's movies. What did bother me is that the book is a great story and we will probably never get that story properly adapted onto the big screen. As good as this is as a standalone movie it is an awful adaptation.

      Yes, that is what I got out of the scene too. This is precisely what made it so horrific.

      I did find her whole character and the film to be very lacking in its last part. I don't think they used all those moments as well as they could, but it's been a long time since I saw the film so I cannot be more specific here.

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    2. I remain signed on to your idea that this book needs (a) to be read by me and (b) that it needs a more literal adaptation.

      Yes, I can say that the final third is the weakest part of the movie. But I still enjoyed myself greatly, and found the final images to be hauntingly pretty. I'm so glad I made time for this film (and that I didn't read the book first)!

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