Film Reviews

Under the Skin Jonathan Glazer

Rating - 8/10

It's probably the case that, if you look at any period of time in the right way, you could claim that it was a golden age for something. And yet, I'd like to raise the suggestion that the first few years of the 21st century were an interesting time in cinema, seeing (among other events) Scarlett Johansson graduating from fresh new face to actual movie star, by way of Lost in Translation, and the British film industry pushing itself in new directions, with a fierce, rugged and independent cinema threatening to emerge in Scotland (thanks, in part, to an influx of interest, and money, from Denmark), and music video and advertising whizz Jonathan Glazer confounding audiences with the controversial, but arguably brilliant, Birth (of course the same period did also see the release of the infamous Sex Lives of the Potato Men, but at least that was a film that had the courage in its conviction to be actively terrible).

As the decade wore on, things seemed to wobble a bit for each and the heat died down, whether due to questionable choices, the catch-all argument of The Recession, the inevitable fading of novelty or, in Glazer's case, dogged determinism. True, Johansson's career has continued apace, and has no doubt proved lucrative for her, although that early spark of excitement, and almost guarantee of quality, seemed to go missing. And the British film industry has muddled along against adversity, as it tends to do. Yet Glazer has remained exceptionally quiet, with barely a word heard from him over the past decade.

So it seems like serendipity (for the sake of fairly tenuous arguments at least) that all three have come together for Under the Skin, a fairly fast and loose adaptation of Michel Faber's 2000 novel of the same title. Considering much of Faber’s novel revolved around a lone woman picking up single male hitchhikers on rural Scottish roads, it’s probably no great surprise that it’s taken Glazer this long to bring it to the screen, the question is, why did he effectively squander such strong early-career buzz to single-mindedly pursue such a niche project?

It’s a question that’s effectively answered in the opening frames of Under the Skin, an abstract, but curiously menacing sequence that not only serves to instantly alienate a fair section of the audience, but also to announce that Glazer’s take on the material is very much its own thing, and that, through its calling attention to its own filmic nature (while what exactly the images on show depict is up for debate, they do seem to show the construction of a lens, of sorts), that he’s fully engaged in turning a perhaps unfilmable book into something intensely cinematic.

That’s not to say that it deviates entirely from its source; the same basic idea of a woman, alarmingly odd in her attractiveness, driving around the rather more mundane setting of Scottish A-Roads looking for male hitchhikers remains intact, and both versions hit a number of the same narrative beats. What’s interesting though is that they meet them while coming from different directions – where Faber’s original used grubby, earthy humour and slightly gross-out satire to frame a body-horror of gradual dehumanisation, Glazer’s take follows its central character through her gaining a sense of empathy and personality, but approaches the subject with a hard, cold and cruel intelligence (a beach-set scene is so beyond the pale in terms of what conventional narrative cinema generally allows, and yet is filmed in such a detached, matter of fact manner, that it could perhaps be described as genuinely evil).

The idea of finding terror in the process of cognitive development – as if exposing and picking at the very thin line that separates humans from the animals – places the film within the company of David Lynch’s early short The Alphabet, inspired by a nightmare that the director’s infant daughter had, and, while invoking Lynch is something of a lazy go-to for any reviewer when describing a film that attempts to be a bit abstract and dreamlike, it feels like an apt comparison here. Particularly as the sound design does more than its fair share in the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing tone, with Mica Levi’s twitchy, scratching, crawling score (several planets removed from her work as Micachu and the Shapes) seemingly taking the film’s title at face value. The similarity’s also there in the effective, unsettling use of the decaying husks of Glasgow’s industrial past. Location is a very important to Under the Skin – where the novel stuck strictly to Scotland’s rural routes, inspired by a quite literal sense of awe at the country’s beautiful but desolate and remote scenery, Glazer has uprooted the story to one of its major metropolises. While it could be argued that it was necessary from a production point of view – that housing a film production starring a major Hollywood star would be more difficult in the Highlands, and, more importantly given the film’s reliance on secretly filmed, candid footage, keeping it quiet would’ve been nigh-on impossible – the transfer of location does add an extra melancholic bite to the narrative; people may swarm together in cities, but it’s still alarmingly easy for people to disappear completely and not be missed.

It probably goes without saying that it was an exceptionally brave decision on Johansson’s part to be involved in such a project, given its skeletal narrative, deliberately impenetrable character motivations and distinctly grimy setting, not to mention her having to keep her cool while interacting with, and subtly manipulating, the great unwashed. More importantly, despite all this, she turns in an exceptionally fine performance, infusing a blank character with well-drawn moments of microcosmic emotion – such as in, when finding one of her male marks to not meet the grade, Johansson’s (unnamed) character immediately glazes over and slumps back into cold indifference – and also effectively capturing and conveying the sense of an unmanageable flood of feelings in the film’s later stages. The notion of parachuting a bankable American star into British films is one that we’re all familiar with, but Under the Skin is possibly the only one (well, other than Notting Hill) to actually make it an integral part of the plot – we’re invited to observe almost every part of Johansson in minute detail, and juxtapose her with the (extra)ordinary people and mostly unknown actors she’s working against, both to understand her character’s methods, and her sense of complete isolation.

Sex, in both senses of the word, is very much a heightened performative act here. Mirroring the almost impossible femininity of Johansson (which includes her spending almost the entirety of the film in frighteningly severe and impractical heels) are her absurdly male cohorts, who spend the film silently swaggering around like John Wayne in motorbike leathers, only communicating in a physical, language, which seems designed to mostly intimidate with its brutality. There’s also a knock-on effect of studying this non-verbal communication so closely, in that the film seemingly encourages the audience to then view the secretly filmed footage of the general public in a similar way, providing a sense of removal from behaviour we might see every day. While unsettling, it’s also oddly humorous – an early scene in a shopping centre highlights the ridiculousness of human libido and vanity, as a passing man not so surreptitiously sneaks a look at Johansson’s arse as he passes her, and a bunch of middle aged women colour themselves an inhuman shade of orange at a makeup counter – which then proves to be even more unsettling when reminded of the fact that these people only gave their consent to filming after the fact.

A (fictional) movie that raises questions about filmmaking ethics is bound to be a difficult viewing experience for many, and it’s far from being the only tricky aspect of the film to get to grips with. Under the Skin is many things, including a difficult, almost tortuously slow experience on first watch (but slips by like a dream on subsequent viewings), a visually striking take on a book that strongly relied on its internal and ambiguous nature to depict impossible things, and, for all its beauty, an experience that might play better on the small screen, given its appropriation of the grammar of Reality TV, and its need to be watched in absolute pin-drop silence to get the full effect. It also feels like precisely the sort of film the British industry should be making, successfully drawing on its rich history of unvarnished urban drama, as well as the exceptional talent of the country’s special effects artists, and close ties to Hollywood. Most importantly though, it’s something of a vindication for Glazer’s determination, hopefully we won’t have to wait another ten years for his next work.