Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan
Length: 107 minutes
If an intergalactic Scarlett Johansson doppelganger pulled up to me in a white transit van and asked me in an English accent what exactly this thing we earthlings call ‘cinema’ is, I would most likely direct her to the nearest movie theatre showing Under the Skin, the latest – and so far the best – work from Jonathan Glazer. 2000’s excellent Sexy Beast and 2004’s curiously underrated Birth suggested a director with a unique voice and an exceptionally well-versed cinematic vocabulary. Now, a quick ten years later, he confirms these suspicions with a haunting slow-burner about nothing less than what a person consists of other than skin, flesh and bone.
Adapted from a 2000 novel of the same name, Under the Skin follows a murderous extra-terrestrial in ostensibly human form as she seduces young Scottish men before leading them to their unusual deaths. What follows is sure to disappoint anyone expecting a satisfying slice of straight-to-DVD horror sleaze as she develops a curiosity for the inner workings of the human being and eventually attempts to defy her own nature by fitting in as a human herself. Ambiguity-haters beware because this film is decidedly minimalist when it comes to divulging narrative details, committing instead to a dream-like haziness which proves hypnotic so long as the viewer is willing to go along with it.
But if Under the Skin doesn’t give us a fully established reality then I suppose we’re just going to have to settle for getting some of the most eerily beautiful imagery of any film in recent years. With an atmosphere that’s thicker than caramel and darker than crude oil, Glazer frolics somewhere in the murky channel connecting Kubrick (think 2001/A Clockwork Orange) and Lynch (think Inland Empire/Eraserhead) but creates something that’s wholly his own. Like the black liquid abyss into which Johansson’s alien lures her victims, Under the Skin entirely submerges its viewer. Unlike the alien’s shallow mimicry of human behaviour, Glazer seems profoundly in tune with the logic behind his predecessors’ technical wizardries, allowing him to tinker with the wiring to create something genuinely new.
In a film this heavily stylised, the most jarring shots result from the hidden camera footage of the crowded streets and shopping malls of Glasgow, where we’re given the rare treat of seeing everyday uggos like you and I share the screen with one of this generation’s premier sex symbols. In the context of cinema’s glossy approximation of reality, the real world looks like another planet and real people look like a whole other species. The authenticity of this footage helps to add new layers to a film already rich with ideas about the ineffability of the human spirit, and it also extends the prevalent theme of female sexuality with respect to the male gaze by acknowledging the public’s similarly dehumanising awe of our Hollywood ‘icons’. This adds a little more poignancy to what may well be Johansson’s best performance yet as she progresses from seductive cool to quiet, lonely bewilderment with entrancing restraint. Despite being the only actor to be given more than a few minutes of screen time, her character remains a mystery by the film’s end but it’s difficult not to empathise with her as she perplexedly observes the strangest and cruellest manifestations of human nature.
With an atmosphere that’s thicker than caramel and darker than crude oil, Glazer frolics somewhere in the murky channel connecting Kubrick and Lynch but creates something that’s wholly his own.
In a narrative sense, Under the Skin could be considered a small film where not a lot happens but, in terms of the thoughts it entertains and the ideas it asks the viewer to contemplate, it’s a big film where several things are constantly happening at once. That it was Glazer’s creative frustration which delayed its release seems oddly appropriate. This isn’t just a film about the failure of an alien to fully understand humans but about the failure of humans to fully understand other humans, the failure of humans to fully understand themselves, the failure of men to fully understand women, the failure of the audience to fully understand the performer and the failure of the artist to fully understand the human – or at the very least, these are all things Glazer allows you to consider during his long-lingering shots if you so choose to.
The meditative pacing and wilful obscurity of Under the Skin compel me to advise caution to anyone who considers those words to be red flags but, when all is said and done, anyone who doesn’t like this film clearly isn’t drawn to the art form of cinema for the same reasons that I am. This film took my brain, swallowed it whole and, God help me, I had an absolute blast travelling through its digestive system. This is the sort of film which leaves you staggering from the cinema in a dazed stupor, barely caring to look out for passing cars as you cross the street. If it takes Jonathan Glazer another ten years to follow this up, he’s given us one hell of a film to turn over in our heads in the meantime.