Under the Skin

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UK Release Date 14th March 2014
Director Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett & a Transit
Runtime 108 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 22nd March 2014

I have to admit that I completely missed Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. Passed me by completely, which I think I can probably be forgiven for, given the director’s less than prolific output. From what I can gather though, it’s a fair bit different from Sexy Beast, which of course I have seen.

Under the Skin is Glazer’s long in the making (10 years…) adaptation of the Michael Faber novel of the same name. Which regular readers will already have guessed, I haven’t read. My expectations for the movie adaptation then are derived entirely from a pretty decent advertising campaign and some impressive word of mouth from the London Film Festival.

The movie opens with what we’re taken to assume (eventually) is the creation of an eye. To say it’s Kubrick-esque I think would be fair. An inky black ‘iris’ surrounded by bright white ‘fluid’ sparks into life. We then cut to a motorcyclist flying through dark Scottish countryside before pulling in next to a white transit van in a remote lay-by. The rider walks off the road, apparently knowing exactly where he is going, collects a young girl’s body from the darkness and deposits it in the back of the van. This it would appear will provide the clothes for Scarlett Johanson’s nameless woman. She clinically undresses the body in featureless, bright white surroundings, peering at it in curiosity as she dresses herself. Throughout the remainder of the movie, we follow the woman as she drives apparently aimlessly around Glasgow’s suburbs, approaching men, expertly checking their family status and taking the lonely ones back to her derelict house. Where she tempts them in and hypnotises them into a black, liquid oblivion. The motorcyclist appears at regular intervals to clear up any evidence left by the woman but when she picks up a disfigured man, the alien apparently starts to feel and she releases him. The apparent awakening of the mimic starts a series of events that ultimately do not end well.

Having seen Under the Skin a week ago now, I’m still not entirely sure whether I want my two hours back or whether I’m thankful for the time I’ve spent attempting to figure it out. Glazer adopts a deliberately opaque style where we are left as voyeurs with little or no explanation as to what is going on. The first victim is in the passenger seat of the transit one minute and in the next shot is simply no longer there. We are left to assume the worst has happened, particularly because the woman continues as before with no acknowledgement of any action. We gain slightly more information from subsequent victims, but the alien’s motivation is never glimpsed. Even the alien’s presumed gradual awakening is completely underplayed. We see her stop and return to a mirror she has just passed, staring at herself as if seeing the image for the first time and her actions from picking up the disfigured man onwards are clearly not based on the same self preservation that her previous actions were.

As the alien (listed as Laura in the credits but never mentioned by name during the film) Scarlett Johansson carries the film with a truly impressive performance. Cold and distant but not hostile, she perfectly nails the balance required to make it believable that people would accept the creature as a human but also displaying a strong undercurrent of unintentional malice. It's a brave performance in an unlikely film for a Hollywood A-lister and one that was probably instrumental in getting the movie made.

All this leads to a movie that I suspect will split its audience entirely. Critical response to the film has be almost universally positive but I suspect this will not be the case from the cinema going public. A limited big screen run followed by potential cult status on DVD seems a distinct possibility. Which in some senses will be a shame because if nothing else, the sensory experience of Under the Skin on the big screen is quite something to behold. Glazer has done an admirable job of conveying the un-conveyable. That is, a new way of looking at complete isolation. The alien seems to have little if any initial information to go on in terms of human emotion (the inevitably much talked about beach scene being the most heartbreaking evidence of this) and Glazer surrounds her with a score and look that communicates this brilliantly to the audience. Stabbing strings and otherworldly noises will discombobulate you as you try to make sense of the alien’s existence and the use of hidden cameras and unwitting passersby amplifies the at once very real and unreal Scottish landscape (both urban and rural).

Those looking for a more conventional narrative or any kind of movie in the traditional sense are going to come away from this hugely frustrated and quite probably pretty bored though. This is a movie that will probably grow with age but I’m still less than convinced that it entirely deserves the praise lauded at it. As a genuinely impressive and immersive view of a creature trying to deal with its imperatives and an utterly alien existence, Under the Skin will take some beating. I’m just not entirely sure that the result makes a movie I would recommend. But then, I’m beside myself with excitement over the new Muppet movie this weekend. So make of that what you will.

Check out the trailer here.

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