A screening of Gregg Araki's provocative drama MYSTERIOUS SKIN, as part of Southampton Film Week's "Controversies" strand.
Thursday 16 November 2017
by REUBEN MUIR
MYSTERIOUS SKIN (Gregg Araki 2004) is not only difficult to describe but also to recommend, as it is for the most part a deeply uncomfortable watch.
The Southampton Film Week screening was prefaced by a short introduction from senior lecturers Darren Kerr and Donna Peberdy, the editors of a new edited collection of academic essays TAINTED LOVE: SCREENING SEXUAL PERVERSION. They detailed how the idea of the book came about and why they chose MYSTERIOUS SKIN to open the book’s introduction.
As someone who had only become aware of the film through the documentary THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED (Kirby Dick 2006) - which looks at the double standards of how sex is perceived by the US ratings board - I started watching the film believing it to follow a gay romance, which could not be further from the truth. We follow Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet) over a ten-year period as they discover and deal with an event that happened one summer when they were kids. The film’s opening is deeply unsettling. But as the film goes on and explores how the two boys try to deal with their respective traumas, the discomfort begins to settle and the story becomes deeply moving. The filmmakers clearly wanted to portray difficult the subject matter properly and that shows in the sympathetic portrayal of the main characters. Araki opts for subtlety and delicacy over bluntness and hysterics.
Like many films that use a dual narrative structure, there is often one half of the story that is far more interesting than the other. In this case, Neil’s storyline captivates over Brian’s. Gordon-Levitt’s performance perfectly balances the potentially irritating arrogance of his character with a tenderness that is revealed as the film progresses. Minor characters that surround Neil, such as his mother (Elizabeth Shue) and his close friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), captivate and deserved more screen time. Brian’s family, by comparison, oddly border on stereotype. Brian’s story plays out as an investigative narrative as he tries to remember what happened to him in the past, but the film reveals the truth to the audience early on and so there is no suspense for when Brian works it out. Corbet’s performance, while competent, at times moves between being over the top and bland and jars when framed against the brilliance of Gordon-Levitt.
MYSTERIOUS SKIN is a bold and intelligent film. While it may have its discomforting moments, by the end it is a cathartic viewing experience.