The OA Part II Review: Beautiful and baffling, The OA Part II asks you to take another leap of faith

It’s been over two years since the first season arrived on Netflix and now, Brit Marling’s mind-bending The OA returns. You’d be forgiven for forgetting what on earth happened. And Marling, who is co-creator, executive producer and plays the title role, isn’t going to take your hand and guide you through it. Part II is bolder, grander, and far weirder than its predecessor. If you weren’t on board with a bizarre interpretive dance with the power to raise the dead you might struggle with parallel dimensions, magic mirrors and animal telepathy. But for those willing to embrace the oddness it’s as beautiful as it is baffling.

My essay review is available to read on Screen Queens: TV REVIEW- The OA Part II: Beautiful and baffling, The OA Part II asks you to take another leap of faith

A Lonely, Man-Eating Alien Named Laura

Who is that?

In Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, Scarlett Johansson’s character is never named. She isn’t named Isserley, as she is in the novel. She is just she. She’s the otherworldly woman. The alien woman. She is and yet isn’t a woman. She’s beautiful, as women are supposed to be, and sensuous, as women are supposed to be. But she’s the predator with a coat of brown fur that prowls in a white van, who men aren’t afraid of because they haven’t learned to be afraid of smiling strangers quick to ask personal questions. She’s moulded into an unreal woman, a woman who would beckon strange men into her car on a deserted road in the middle of the night. She is alien, literally, and her human alter-ego is a male fantasy. Her apathetic stare as her prey is swallowed is shocking. But there is both tragedy and triumph in watching her consume those men who would have consumed her.

Under the Skin is a sharp slice of metaphysical surreality that, like 2001: A Space Odyssey which it echoes in its opening, takes us to the edge of human existence. But it also burrows deep beneath the surface and explores what it means to be a woman.

Under the Skin 2

She first examines herself in a mirror as she applies red lipstick before she hunts, that symbol of feminine eroticism. As she strips down to black lingerie and beckons her prey (and us, seduced along with them), her body is reflected in the surface of the dark void that swallows them whole. An encounter with a disfigured man (Adam Pearson) provokes empathy in her for the first time. She releases him and stares at herself in a mirror for a long time: who is that? For women, gazed upon in film and so rarely the gazers, appearance is everything, defining who we are to our audience far more than our thoughts or feelings. Who the fuck is that, painted with lipstick? Is she still predator, or is she something else? She gazes at herself and wonders.

She almost finds herself settled in a neat, normal little life. A stranger on a bus (Michael Moreland) is interested in her and takes her into his home. They blankly watch television, dinners on their laps, a parody of heterosexual domestic bliss. She examines her nude body closely in a mirror. Am I this woman now? The lipstick and fur coat have gone. There’s an echo of fairy tale: he carries her, bridal-style, over a deep puddle and leads her gently down the dark spiral steps of a castle. Is he truly kindly, or is he taking advantage of an attractive, silent woman, lost and alone? There’s confusion and desire and fear on her face when they kiss and begin to have sex. But something’s wrong and they stop abruptly. She examines her genitals. She’s too alien. The whole sequence made me ache with sadness and something like recognition.

Under the Skin 3

Deep in the forests of the Scottish Highlands, she wanders. The landscape is brutal, stark, beautiful, like she is, and unforgiving, like she was. Now she’s discovered compassion and her own humanity she’s vulnerable to the worst than humans can do. A logger (Dave Acton) gropes her, chases her, attempts to rape her and tears her skin, revealing a smooth, coal-black body beneath. Her alien and human selves irrevocably separated, she pulls off her human face and her two selves gaze at each other. Who is that? The logger douses her in petrol and sets her alight. She burns to death. Once a man-eating alien becomes a woman she can’t wander in the woods without violence.

Under the Skin 4

I felt a strange kinship with her. The film is a stunning exploration of that universal human experience: loneliness. Images of Glasgow’s revellers, talking, laughing, being alive, are tinted gold and layered into a swirling mass of movement, dancing around each other. Her face looms in the centre of the frame, surrounded by vitality and yet isolated from it. How much time have I spent walking through London alone, sometimes leaving a social situation and feeling relieved yet deflated to be once again alone in my own head? We all, sometimes, feel alien. But while loneliness is universal, her loneliness is female. All women live with the societal pressure of performing desirable femininity, a role which she must perform to survive. Her attempt to discard her performance and become a “real” woman ends in rape and murder. Humans are just as cruel as aliens, and being a woman is dangerous. At the beginning of the film she takes the clothes from a female corpse. A tear falls from the dead woman’s eye. Whether this is a human woman or her alien predecessor is unclear but the inevitability of their fate is not.

She is The Female, according to the credits, or “the alien” according to many synopses, but in the feature on the DVD about the editing she is suddenly referred to as Laura. That’s my name. Hearing it was bizarre, shiver-inducing. She’s referred to as Laura in multiple reviews and articles about the film and I would love to know why the name was chosen and yet unchosen. The coincidence only deepened this odd feeling that this character and I were somehow alike. Perhaps stories about being human are best told through the eyes of the alien. But to me Under the Skin is so specifically about being a woman and being a woman incorrectly, and of the simultaneous desire and fear to shed your “Otherness”. I never expected to identify with a man-eating alien, but of course the film taps into that other very human emotion: empathy. She might have been constructed in the film’s opening minutes and torn apart at the end but as her ashes intermingle with falling snow and become part of the earth so she’s left a haunting, lasting impression on me.

The Amphibian Man and the Subversion of Born Sexy Yesterday

Listen, it’s really easy to make jokes about The Shape of Water. A woman falls in love and lust with a bizarrely ripped Amphibian man who likes snacking on boiled eggs and beloved pets and posses a retractable penis. But the Academy and I were enchanted by this Little Merman from the Black Lagoon meets Girl love story that blends sweeping old Hollywood romance with typical del Toro darkness against a backdrop of rising Cold War tensions.

Musical numbers aside, what I found most remarkable about The Shape of Water was its subversion of a deeply misogynistic trope that remains a mainstay of fantasy and science fiction storytelling.

In his brilliant video essay of the same name Jonathan McIntosh, aka the Pop Culture Detective, examines the trope he dubs Born Sexy Yesterday. A creepier cousin of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, characters who are Born Sexy Yesterday are naive, childlike characters who just so happen to be extremely physically attractive and blissfully unaware of it. The conventions of fantasy and science fiction allow this combination of innocence and sexuality in a socially acceptable context, whether it’s Madison the mermaid (Daryl Hannah) from Splash, Leelo (Milla Jovovich) from The Fifth Element who is constructed in a lab or Quorra (Olivia Wilde) from Tron: Legacy, a living, breathing computer program. This trope can also be applied to the Disney interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid to an extent as Ariel (Jodi Benson) washes up on the shore voiceless, clueless and head over heels in love with a prince who is enchanted by this innocent stranger. These characters are alike in that they are sexualised adult women “defined by their innocence of, and inexperience with, worldly things, especially when it comes to sex, romance or basic social interaction”. Ariel is the exception here as she is the protagonist of the story but in general these characters exist to serve as our male hero’s love interest and their naivety positions them as “students” for men to “teach”. At the end of the film the Born Sexy Yesterday character is usually assimilated into the hero’s “real world”, now knowledgeable about romance and sex with this one man with no desire to look elsewhere.

Leeloo

Above: Leeloo from The Fifth Element

McIntosh highlights that the trope is an expression of masculine insecurity. The men in these films are defined by their directionless normality, their Average Joe status, their lack of satisfaction in relationships with women. Born Sexy Yesterday characters, having never encountered a human man before, see them as absolutely extraordinary and are eager to learn about sex and romance from them. It facilitates the male fantasy on two fronts: the women are pure, untouched virgins to be deflowered and the men aren’t required to exert any effort at all: “since he is the first (and only) man in this woman’s life, he gets to be the best by default”. The man is protected from comparison and rejection AND gets to sleep with a sexy virgin without even trying.

Which brings me back to The Shape of Water. At first glance the plot of the film fits the trope exactly in that it follows an ordinary person falling in love with a beautiful, unknowing otherworldly being but it’s a far more radical interpretation of this familiar story.

Evidently the most essential difference between this film and the aforementioned examples is that here the human “teacher” is female and the non-human “student” is understood to be male. This alone is unusual but not unique; examples of the trope featuring a male Born Sexy Yesterday character include Big and Encino Man although in these cases more general male incompetence rather than sexualised naivety are more often the source of humour and the characters aren’t eroticised in the same way. The Shape of Water however, is centred on its female protagonist’s desire meaning conventional masculine erotic desire and its resulting insecurity is irrelevant.

The choice to make female protagonist Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) mute communicates several different ideas. It simultaneously provides a rare platform for a mute character, makes literal the suggestion that women in 1960s America were voiceless and evokes the Little Mermaid being forced to give up her voice in order to pursue her romantic desire. It’s most important function however is how it unites Elisa and the Amphibian Man as outsiders in society in that they are both unable to audibly speak.

In the film’s most moving scene Elisa signs “He does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am”. The Amphibian Man might be enamoured of his human teacher but the dynamic between them is far more balanced than your typical Born Sexy Yesterday couple. Elisa isn’t trying to force him to fit the mould of the everyday “real’ world that ostracises her and of course at the end of the film she, to fittingly paraphrase The Little Mermaid, becomes part of his world. Except it’s revealed earlier in the film that she was found as a baby in a river with her throat slashed, damaging her voice box beyond repair. When the Amphibian Man takes her into the water with him and her scars transform into gills it feels less like a transformation and more like a homecoming. Her damaged voice not only makes them equals but quite literally allows them to be together and neither lover is forced to adapt to a world they are unfamiliar with. Their happily ever after is their union in the water as it was always meant to be.

Elisa’s lack of audible speech certainly does not make her a silent character. While she appears demure with her girlish headbands and perfectly shined shoes from the very beginning of the film she is shown to be in total ownership of her sexuality. Masturbating in the bath is quickly established as part of her everyday routine and although we see Elisa fully nude as she steps into the water del Toro cuts away during the act itself. As Christina Newland points out in A Brief History of Female Masturbation in the Movies “When the gaze of the camera is male, the mannequins onscreen behave not only according to male fantasy, but to his ego. Sexually voracious or self-gratifying women are often there simply for titillation”. In this case however the camera depicts her pleasure without using pornographic close ups of her nude body or her face in ecstasy.

shapeofwater2

Female masturbation in cinema can exist “in defiance of male sexual power, as a sort of challenge to his sexual supremacy” meaning “many onscreen masturbators are depicted as either comic or darkly neurotic”. But in this film Elisa is neither particularly comic or darkly neurotic or even portrayed as especially lonely. It’s simply an expression of her sexual desire and agency. While her explanation of how she has sex with the Amphibian Man to her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a funny scene their relationship is not treated as shocking or perverted. When Giles (Richard Jenkins) discovers her embracing him she smiles proudly and del Toro clearly isn’t interested in shaming her.

She’s neither the virginal yet sexualised Born Sexy Yesterday female character or the sexually frustrated Average Josephine waiting for her Born Sexy Yesterday lover to reawaken her desire. It’s one of the healthiest explorations of female sexuality that I’ve ever seen on screen. Perhaps the Amphibian Man is in fact a typical Born Sexy Yesterday character in that he is an innocent object of lust but although he is undeniably muscular and oddly beautiful his physical appearance is far too removed from conventional attractiveness to be compared to the naive, near naked nymphs of Splash or The Fifth Element. Neither Elisa or the Amphibian Man is overtly sexualised or exploited in order to fulfil the other’s desires and neither acts as an object of wish fulfilment for audience members (though if you fantasise about sexy fish men, you do you).

When I first saw The Shape of Water I was struck by how simultaneously endearingly old fashioned it felt and yet bold in its execution and themes. del Toro’s adoption and reshaping of numerous influences and tropes have formed a truly mesmerising hybrid of genre and styles. I wasn’t particularly surprised to wake up to the news that The Shape of Water had won both Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars this year. It’s period setting, affection for old Hollywood and lack of direct political engagement and potential for controversy (i.e. Get Out, Three Billboards) placed it as a strong contender. However, many (Vox, Slate, daft people on Twitter) have dubbed it the “safe choice” which I find deeply strange. If a “safe choice” is a film in which a woman in charge of her own sexuality and yet not overtly sexualised or shamed gets her happily ever after with a ripped Amphibian Man then I say bring on the Oscars 2019.