Directed by: Jonathan Glazer.
Written by: Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer based on the novel by Michel Faber.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Laura), Paul Brannigan (Andrew), Krystof Hádek (The Swimmer), Scott Dymond (The Nervous Man), Jessica Mance (Alien), Michael Moreland (The Quiet Man), Jeremy McWilliams (The Bad Man).
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a love it or hate it film. Out of all the films I saw at TIFF in 2013, this one had the most walk outs – and that’s saying something, since I also watched the slow moving, 3 hour, 59 chapter German film about domestic violence The Police Officer’s Wife (FYI – I liked that one as well). It’s easy to see why some will hate Under the Skin – it does not look or feel like a “normal” movie – it doesn’t have an easy to digest narrative (for much of the film, it almost appears to have no narrative at all). The visuals are strange, the score bat shit insane, and there is only character – played by Scarlett Johansson who has significant screen time, and who she is, and what she is doing, only becomes clear late in the movie. And yet, I found Under the Skin to be a haunting movie – there are visuals in this film that will stay with me for the rest of my life. And the movie also cast a strange spell over me, much like Johansson casts a spell over her male victims in the movie. If nothing else, Under the Skin is the most audacious art film of the year.
The film is very loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber – essentially only taking the most basic of premises from the novel – an alien drives around the Scottish countryside, picking up men for nefarious purposes. The book makes everything quite explicit – but the movie does not – not giving us the voice over narration that filled the novel, and let us in on the alien’s thinking. Much of the movie consists of Johansson’s Laura driving around – with a specially mounted camera inside her van – as she asks real strangers for directions – and if she feels like it, inviting them into her van. Many of these interactions were not only unscripted – but involved real people who didn’t know they were being filmed at all, let alone as part of a movie.
Praise must be given to Scarlett Johansson for being willing to go all out for her role. Yes, she is naked in parts of the film, but even those scenes are not really erotic. She strips down, and walks away from the men, who follow her into a watery grave (what happens under the water is eye popping, but you won’t see it until late in the film). Johansson plays her character – known as Laura – with a bemused look of not quite understanding on her face. She sees the world of humans, but doesn’t understand what she sees. The film thrusts us into Johansson’s skin, and makes us see humanity through her alien perspective.
There are images in Under the Skin that will haunt you. What happens under the water, and the very end of the movie are triumphs of special effects. Glazer uses these special effects not only because they look cool, but because they are bizarre, disturbing images that get to the heart of what the movie is about. Even stronger is a sequence at the beach that Johansson watches mostly from a distance and never fully grasps – or else, she grasps it and simply doesn’t have the same human emotions we have. The image of a toddler, stranded on a beach struggling to stand up is going to be with me forever.
The first hour of the film is when it is at its best. This when Glazer isn’t really interested in supplying the audience with much in the way of a narrative, or an explanation for what they are seeing. He trusts the audience to figure it out – and if you pay attention, than you will eventually get it. But even before you do that, there is something great about being lost in this movie – watching the images, and puzzling it out. As the movie goes along, more narrative is imposed on the film, and it becomes slightly less mysterious, and also slightly less interesting. Still, Under the Skin remains one of the more audacious films in recent memory – a welcome comeback for Glazer, who made two great films – Sexy Beast and Birth – a decade ago, and then disappeared. With each movie, he gets more daring – as he pushes himself further from the mainstream. I cannot wait to see what he does next.