Under The Skin – Reviewed // Simon Duckett
Dir: Jonathan Glazer
With: Scarlett Johansson
What to make of this extraordinary film? The director’s previous offerings (Sexy Beast, Birth), whilst fine in their own right, offer no preparation whatsoever for this experience. If you can imagine a science fiction film directed by Shane Meadows who had just gorged on Stanley Kubrick you might come close to picturing this.
Scarlett Johansson is Laura, an extra-terrestrial, apparently assisted by random bikers, who drives a white van around Glasgow inviting single men to join her whom she subsequently lures to various dark and shadowy places. Here there are pools of dark, oily liquid which they calmly sink into naked whilst she walks across the surface. We don’t know why but we do eventually get to see what happens to them and are none the wiser for it. During all this, there is very little dialogue but a discordant, abstract score that cleverly mimics the alien’s perception of a strange land and at the same time making the audience very uncomfortable indeed. In fact the film makers have succeeded brilliantly at creating an alien’s eye view of a world which she has little interest in except as the source of food or gratification or possibly even fuel, it’s not clear. To heighten this effect the footage was shot on the streets, shopping malls and clubs incognito, only afterwards was the permission of the participants sought. Johansson herself is disguised in a shortish black wig and speaks in a cut-glass British accent (we can only guess at what the actress made of the thick Glasgow brogue). All the while the squeaks, rattles and hums continue on the soundtrack placing us right inside the head of this emotionless interloper. The sense of alienation reaches a crescendo when she ventures out of town to the seaside where she meets a Czech tourist who explains that he is visiting the area because it is ‘nowhere’. Also on the beach are a young couple and their child whose dog gets into difficulties in the rough sea. The tourist attempts to help and there follows an excruciating sequence that is almost unbearable to watch in its sheer bleakness.
Things shift, however, when she encounters a disfigured young man (Pearson) who shops by night and is similarly alienated from other people. This experience serves to disorientate her further as she develops empathy and therefore an interest in her human surroundings. From here on in she abandons her van, becoming a sort of Woman Who Fell To Earth as she diffidently explores different human experiences (eating chocolate cake, watching television) and becoming increasingly vulnerable as she explores the wild Scottish landscape. The sense here is that she has left her pre-planned activities and is following a completely different and therefore unintelligible script and the audience, having become partially aware of her previous plan, shares her feelings of bewilderment and exposure. We fear for her.
Initially perplexing but visually stunning and deeply disturbing, stick with this and you will discover all over again the power of cinema to provide a profoundly emotional experience.