The latest film from Jonathan Glazer, director of SEXY BEAST and BIRTH, is one of those movies that’s difficult to review, much less summarise, without giving too much away about what happens. Those who prefer to watch their films completely spoiler free would therefore be advised to steer clear of this piece until they’ve seen the film for themselves. Mind you, Michel Faber’s source novel has been out for years, so any attempts at keeping any surprises quiet are probably redundant anyway.
Glazer’s film strips Faber’s book right down and relocates much of its action from the Scottish Highlands to the city of Glasgow. Scarlett Johansson plays a girl on the hunt for men. She has no name, but then neither does anyone else in this, at least according to the end credit crawl. By the time we get there, of course, we know it’s because in the world we are being given a glimpse of names are not important. Johansson's character patrols the city streets in her van, looking for the dysfunctional, and the lonely, those who will not be missed by the society they should be a part of but, for various reasons, are not. Exactly who, or what, Johansson is meant to be is open to interpretation, and by the end of the film everyone will have formed their own view. What she does with her victims is a bit of a mystery as well, even though we’re shown it in some detail. Eventually, she makes her way out into the grim, chill, forbidding countryside, where the film reaches its downbeat ending.
UNDER THE SKIN is full on art house science fiction. In fact I’m not sure mainstream audiences are going to get on with it at all. If I had to describe it (and it’s more difficult than you might think), try imagining what you might get if Jean-Luc Godard directed SPECIES and set it in Glasgow. Some of the imagery is reminiscent of BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW and much if it is just as impenetrable. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this. In fact it’s a sheer delight to see such a weird, thought-provoking, original piece of movie science fiction on the big screen. As I’ve mentioned above, there’s very little going on in terms of plot but, like the movies of Nicolas Winding-Refn (especially VALHALLA RISING and ONLY GOD FORGIVES) this is a movie that is never less than engrossing.
Pivotal to the film’s success is its central performance. As the unnamed creature, Scarlett Johansson does a very fine job indeed of portraying an individual unfamiliar with our world, while at the same time radiating an aura of seductive (and appealingly mysterious) sexuality that makes her conquests not just believable but understandable. At the same time it’s an immensely sympathetic and understated performance, and by the end you really feel for this creature about whom you still know very little at all.
Jonathan Glazer keeps the direction low-key, with a cinema-verite approach to the location work. The science fiction sequences where Johansson disposes of her victims are appropriately other-worldly and unnerving, not least because we’re never quite sure what’s going on. With slick black backgrounds, shrivelling bodies, and pools of glossy oil, these scenes are as integral to the film as the grim cityscapes, and the addition of Johansson in her black underwear, or naked, only serves to augment the strangeness rather than take the edge off it.
UNDER THE SKIN is one of those movies that needs to be mulled over after watching it. I can honestly say that when the credits rolled I wasn't sure whether I liked it or not, but I still thought it was a great film. Now, the next morning, I can say with all confidence that I loved it.It’s not a film for everyone, however. I saw it as the closing film at the Glasgow Film Festival and at the Q&A afterwards it quickly became apparent that there were quite a few members of the audience who didn’t get on with the film at all and seemed to have missed the point entirely. I was therefore doubly glad to be able to get director Jonathan Glazer on his own afterwards so I could tell him how very fine I thought the picture was. He’s a lovely, quiet, thoughtful chap who is already one of our most interesting film-makers. I hope we don’t have to wait quite so long for his next project.
Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN will be on general release in UK cinemas from 14th March 2014