DIR: Jonathan Glazer • WRI: Walter Campbell • PRO: Nick Wechsler, James Wilson • DOP: Daniel Landin • ED: Paul Watts • MUS: Mica Levi • DES: Chris Oddy • CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Jessica Mance
The opening shots of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin depict a human eyeball under construction by an alien machine constantly lingering just out of view. We know the machine is of alien-origin on account of subtle product-design touches: the glaring white nothing that makes up the background; the sterile shine glimmering from the artificial tissue bringing one to mind of Chris Cunningham’s groundbreaking, unsettling video for Bjork’s ‘All is Full of Love’. As the eyeball is completed the frame begins a gut-wrenchingly slow zoom towards the artificial iris, the would-be window into the human soul, but under the circumstances and accompanied by Mica Levi’s pulsing, otherworldly score the eyeball seems to glare back in an almost Orwellian fashion, thus setting the tone appropriately for this hypnotising observation piece.
Under the Skin tells the story of an alien seductress, prowling the streets of modern-day Glasgow seeking out vulnerable, lonely young men with a view to harvesting them for an unseen, unaddressed alien corporation for whom she presumably works. Unlike many lesser directors would have in his shoes, Jonathon Glazer keeps strictly with the alien’s perspective, a decision which seems initially crude and even potentially sadistic and yet as the story (or lack thereof) evolves one cannot help but recognize a series of uncomfortable tropes in human behaviour that for better or worse might define us as a species, under the gaze of an alien fly-on-the-wall.
Any male actor appearing here is, generally speaking, fulfilling a thematic bit-part. Never lasting longer than ten minutes, each of her male prey featured fill in a blank spot on Glazer’s imagined collage of human nature. This is Scarlett Johansson’s show to the final frame. Having spent the last few years ticking hot-girl boxes in largely meaningless blockbuster fare it would have been easy to forget what a fine actress she is when the material is right, and here the role of menacing alien succubus presents a character as suited to her as Jake La Motta was to De Niro. It is her deathly calm demeanour and factory-constructed flirtation that holds the centre of the film. It is her projected mood that allows the film to function as a mood piece. In everything from the still, observant frame through to the experimental score and the slick, subtle special effects this film stares the viewer down and without much traditional narrative progression takes one on a gripping, thought-provoking journey and none of this would be possible without Scarlett Johansson.
The sparse arrangement of the film’s action allows us space to ponder the all important conundrum of perspective and in doing so to realise that the whole affair is a series of Dante-style abysses glaring back at us from the theatre screen. Quite often the static frames and emotional gulf between the alien and the audience emanate a feeling of surveillance upon the footage. Often our only means of connecting to the action are through the human victims; lonely males on the fringes of Scottish urban and rural landscape, shot here with a view to depicting their jagged harshness more so than their tourist-appeal. I harbour a general detest for stories which raise achingly difficult questions in their duration and elect to deem themselves able to answer in the same breath. Here, respectfully, Glazer raises more questions about male reactions to sexualised femininity than anyone could be entirely comfortable answering and his film is more potent in its message for this.
His third film in, Jonathan Glazer has crafted a film more dense, thought-provoking, beautiful and disturbing than either of the other two films under his belt, even if it is nowhere near so riotously entertaining as 2000’s Sexy Beast. Regardless of the time he has taken to produce three features in total, he has utterly failed to produce anything uninteresting.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Under the Skin is released on 14th March 2014