Jonathan Glazer is a scalpel-precise filmmaker whose work explores how the smallest fissure in a pattern can undo your sense of time, self, and place. In “Birth,” a woman about to be married is confronted by a child purporting to be the reincarnated ghost of her dead first husband, unraveling her impending marriage. In “Under the Skin,” an alien succubus goes about her ways preying on men in Scotland, only to, as if by accident, discover the humanity within her. In “The Zone of Interest,” a Nazi concentration camp commandant’s body rebels against the horrible doings of his soul.
Glazer stamped his name as a director of eerie music videos for the likes of similarly contrarian groups Radiohead and Massive Attack, later applying the dreamlike and expressionistic demands of that genre to narrative feature lengths. All of his films feature some kind of reverie interlude, where the movie itself appears to be dreaming, recycling and reinterpreting its own images. Music also plays a great role in his films, with Mica Levi lending metallic discord to “Under the Skin,” “The Zone of Interest,” and his short film “The Fall,” while Alexandre Desplat brings sweeping string grandeur to Nicole Kidman’s inner turmoil. You are never fully settled in a Jonathan Glazer picture, as they contort themselves unexpectedly, bringing more than a dash of the avant-garde into what could have just been a mainstream genre outing on paper. “Sexy Beast” is a dark comedy about a sociopathic gangster with some of the most surreal images this side of any crime movie.
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If “The Zone of Interest” conveys Glazer’s wrath at the numb complicities of a world churned by evil, then “Under the Skin” is perhaps his most hopeful outpouring of the necessity to anchor humanity in a world alienated by and from itself. Though that film does, of course, end with Scarlett Johansson unzipped from her alien skin, burned to smolders by a male attacker. Yet the cinders of her corpse rise into the air as an almost hopeful exaltation — we are made of starstuff, here for a minute, and then we’re gone.
It’s heartening to see his work finally recognized by the Academy, as “The Zone of Interest” is up for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, and will likely win Best International Feature. Glazer did the impossible, which was to sneak his arthouse leanings into a Holocaust movie that on its surface sounds Oscar-ready, but the movie at its core is challenging and frightening, a horror movie zipped up into an Oscar bait framework. And horror, and the reinvention of what that looks like onscreen, always seem to be his primary interests. We are compelled to look away from awfulness but seduced by the beauty of the images — even the sparseness of “The Zone of Interest” has a strange seductive power. The alien woman (Johansson) of “Under the Skin” and her methods seem like the best metaphor for Glazer and his own: allure, followed by unfathomable, unspeakable horror.
With contributions from David Ehrlich.
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