Every so often a high-toned arthouse director dips a toe into the horror genre and the results are uplifting: You realize vampires and space aliens are subjects too rich to be the sole property of schlockmeisters. That's the case with two new arty genre pictures: Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive — both slow, expressionist, non-narrative, the kind of films that drive some people crazy with boredom and put others in their thrall.
Under the Skin is nothing like the satirical novel by Michel Faber it's based on, but it helps to know what the book is about. There's this female alien from a planet of cow-like creatures. First, she has surgery to look like an Earthling, then she drives around Scotland seducing brawny men — who are drugged, castrated, fattened for slaughter and shipped to the home world in pieces. Director Glazer has eliminated every last drop of exposition, so where our protagonist is from and what exactly she's doing is beside the point. Instead, we get a creepy-crawly, near-abstract meditation on a woman's estrangement from her body.
Scarlett Johansson plays the alien. In the first scenes, she slips on a shaggy wig and a dead woman's clothes, adopts an English accent, and cruises Scotland enticing hitchhikers into a darkened building, where the world turns inky black and milky white. In near-silhouette, she doffs her clothes and draws these men into a pool of ... I don't know. Something oozy. The closer they get to her, the more they seem to dissolve. Occasionally, a black-clad motorcyclist rumbles by to make off with a body ... it's all very vague. Composer Mica Levi's quivering, atonal strings saw your eardrums; the soundtrack teems with blips and squeaks and a babble of human voices.
Many critics have rhapsodized over Under the Skin, but there's a touch of Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome — it's not that great. It's monotonous, and there were times I wished I could go out for a double — make that triple — espresso.
But the film picks up when the alien encounters a man with severe deformities. To loosen him up, she tells him he has beautiful hands; and when he asks her, on the verge of coupling, if this is a dream, she tells him it is and seems to mean it in the kindest way. After that, her formerly dead eyes signal a longing for connection; she regards her body — especially her private parts — with curiosity and wonder. The incendiary finale is shocking: You might not realize until then how much this depersonalized tone poem has gotten under your skin.
Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is more of an arm's-length experience, but it's a neat comedy about deadpan hipsters — deadpan undead hipsters. They're called Adam and Eve and played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton: an on-again off-again vampire couple since — maybe — time immemorial. Now they're in Detroit, a decaying city where the underground music scene thrives and they don't look a bit out of place. Adam and Eve aren't rampaging ghouls. They slurp blood-bank blood and confer hipness on their ramshackle surroundings.
Only Lovers Left Alive has its draggy sections, but Mia Wasikowska wakes it up as a hedonistic vampire with a devil grin and zero self-control. And once you get on the movie's wavelength, it's delicious. Learning to love Jarmusch's work means recognizing the passion under the deadpan snobbery. He digs outsiders. His vampires think longingly of the age of Lord Byron, and Adam has a reverence for vintage guitars.
I think there's a note of self-satire here, that Jarmusch is poking fun at his own stylized, white-boy cool. Underneath, though, he's deadly serious. Snatches of dialogue suggest he thinks the world is fatally poisoned — culturally, economically, environmentally. So this is a kind of dirge, a funeral service for artists of his ilk. It would be insufferable if it weren't so charming.