“You don’t want to wake up, do you?”
The response to Under the Skin is visceral. Jonathan Glazer’s visually spectacular and profoundly unsettling masterpiece is a film that has polarised critics and simultaneously elicited celebration or derision from festival audiences. When confronted with something this intrepid it is impossible to react ambivalently.
The film undoubtedly has its precursors, prompting logical references to, for example, David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. Yet Under the Skin is a unique, uncanny and unflinching work of art that redefines the form of filmmaking. In particular the film’s brilliance derives from the thread of unease that tangles throughout its individual elements. Unravel the thread further and one discovers a disquiet stemming from both an evocative sense of ‘otherness’ as well as an eerily warped duality. The uncomfortable distortions and disconcerting foreignness coil through the storytelling, acting (or non-acting), arresting visuals and spine-chilling soundtrack to perfectly bestride a prickly imperceptible line.
Under the Skin – loosely extracted by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell from the Michael Faber novel – follows the story of an extraterrestrial who stalks the streets of Glasgow concealed as a female human so as to entice hapless men and deliver them to a murky and chilling fate. Despite her remit and obligations the unnamed creature becomes infected with a sense of identity, a change that provokes devastating consequences, blurring the line between predator and prey.
It is a sparse tale of duality and extremes, curiously detached and alien but mesmerising, tender and profound. Glazer’s adept unfolding of pace with piecemeal discovery and pleasingly symmetrical structure as well as sudden and brazen revelation results in an anxious viewing experience. Under the Skin is undoubtedly brutal; there are no names, a crucial paucity of dialogue that removes reassurance or casual comprehension, and starkly cold scenes that are merciless in their matter-of-factness. We are not told what to think. Questions are not answered. Nonetheless, each moment (and involuntary reaction) is laden with meaning to precipitate a peculiar but profound parable that raises unsavoury queries regarding morality, identity, emotion, compassion, loneliness, the nature of attraction, and what it means to be human. The film provides the perfect alien foil.
Scarlett Johansson’s subtle performance combines vital and liberating femininity with expressionlessly strange watchfulness, the two qualities bleeding together ever more emotionally as her character undergoes a crisis of identity. She offers a nuanced, sensual and physical interpretation that is a wonderful illustration of the use of body language. It is a brave performance; Johansson is laid bare, physically and mentally, as she interacts with unwitting members of the public. Certainly the incongruity of a celebrity in the Glasgow locations filmed through hidden cameras establishes an outsider perspective. Herein is the pillar of Under the Skin’s duality and otherness: through this viewpoint the humans look unquestionably strange.
Correspondingly, nowhere is the duality and distance more clearly embodied than in the seemingly conflicting synthesis of visual styles: the sublimely imagined and mundanely observed. Explicitly banal localities contrast beautifully with molten symbolism to make clear the difference between human and otherwise. The secret filming through shopping centres, improvised scenes of seduction between Johansson and non-actors, as well as shots of her driving through streets assessing honestly oblivious men, add an unnerving sense of removed reality as the audience also view these things through predatory alien eyes. This technique is genius, disturbing and intoxicatingly effective. On the other hand the stylised sequences could not be more distinct, yet fit together seamlessly, articulating unimaginable spaces with simplicity. We experience an abstract visual birth as she practises her first stuttering syllables, a startlingly white preparation space, ritualised ensnarement in a black void, men floating in a pool of amniotic blue-black fluid, a suspended hint of some unfathomable machine process… images left bravely intangible and unexplained. These perfectly executed dimensions could not be further – or more aptly – removed.
The visuals are unique and arresting. Under the Skin’s flair and beauty alone might have been enough to propel the film into a Top 10 list. With such sparing use of dialogue, it is the images that underpin the otherworldly character of the story and instil a combination of attraction and aversion in the audience. To this end Daniel Landin’s isolating cinematography is both affectingly grey and mysteriously vibrant yet always breathtakingly compelling. The unfolding images are remarkably unambiguous; a singular tear, a roving motorbike, a detailed physical inspection, a ritualistic seduction, vanishing innards, tell us as much as – if not more than – words. This is storytelling at its sensual best, sustained by perfectly executed effects. Who knew billowing and sinking hollow skin could be this beautifully disturbing?
“If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it’s not necessarily going to sound very nice. It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.” – Mica Levi.
The concurrent foundation and crowning glory of Under the Skin is Mica Levi’s miraculous soundtrack. Levi understands string instruments. Under her brilliant direction they become gritty, natural and almost humanoid in their breathiness. The simultaneously organic and electronic-sounding music also expresses the duality and otherness articulated by the rest of the film. Initially what we hear might seem similar to familiar horror music with its predominantly minor keys and sliding shifts, yet it is also unnervingly unique. Levi deploys undaunted repetition of musical themes, overwhelmingly sliding changes of pitch*, scratching strings, fabulously flawed harmonics** and gratingly discordant ‘harmonies’ as well as rapacious percussion, or an unrelenting ¾ time signature to induce a rhythmic thrum of trepidation. Again without words, we absorb sensuality, beauty, menace, and a feeling of inevitability, in addition to a hair-raising impression of mechanised production.
Under the Skin is one of the most unforgettable films of 2014. It is visual and visionary but most impressively it totally expresses – with uncomfortable duality – the nature of ‘otherness’ and the nature of humanity. Glazer has constructed, scale upon scale, a very curious body which offers proof that sometimes the whisper is louder than the shout. Adjectives that come to mind: distinctive, haunting, harrowing, triumphant, mind-blowing, evocative, intoxicating, beautiful, chilling, dispassionate.
** Lightly touching the string with a fingertip to produce a higher-pitched note.
One Room With A View’s Top 20 of 2014 (so far):
20 = X-Men: Days of Future Past
20 = Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
19. The LEGO Movie
17. 22 Jump Street
16. The Wind Rises
15. Mr Turner
13. Starred Up
12 = The Raid 2
12 = Nightcrawler
11. Dallas Buyers Club
10. Gone Girl
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
5. The Wolf Of Wall Street
4. UNDER THE SKIN
Stay tuned as we count down to our Number One film of 2014. Revealed December 30th.