Under the Skin

Under the Skin ★★★★★

The beginning four minute prelude, before the title card for Jonathan Glazer’s "Under the Skin" appears in tiny black letters swept over by a bright white backdrop, could be described using many differing adjectives and considered didactically as either representational of an event or on a pure level of figurative abstractions. I was aware of a disconnect to the sights and sounds on my initial first experience. I fully admit to it, but personally I am in awe of films that make me sit up and disavow an impassive participation. You can fall in love with something in a picture without knowing exactly what it is that is felt, only understanding how it made you feel. It is a beautiful segment where everyone can find their own meaning through it without a prescribed one being taken to the film that maybe isn’t there for an individual viewer themselves. Film critics have attempted to weigh up probable conjecture suppositions from the inception of a small white dot onscreen. Matt Zoller Seitz avouches: ‘The dot grows incrementally larger, or closer, before shaping itself into a pattern of rings that simultaneously suggests a birth canal dilating, the stages of a rocket separating, and a lunar eclipse as seen through a telescope lens.’ Yes, all are feasible suggestions as I cast my mind back in hindsight. I like my science-fiction films to be brave enough to float in epistemic ambiguity and for a filmmaker like Glazer to entertain multiple interpretations rather than wrapping up his package in a neat bow, because it would be a shame if all sci-fi movies were the same product and had to make transparent sense to be enjoyed. Its narrative conceits rely on the potential of extraterrestrial visitors to our planet, so as a work of staggering science-fiction art it wears the genre, as opposed to the genre wearing and owning it.

Likely not since the mystifying, but also brilliant, introductory segment to Ingmar Bergman’s "Persona" have critics been so enthralled by the mysteries of a non-specific set-up. A film essayist, Brian Eggert, picks up the dialogue of these wordless images as he contemplatively expatiates: ‘Will the movement converge into a spatial design such as a planetary syzygy?’ A faint off-screen 'female' voice is heard, breaking the silent stillness of non-diegetic eerie notes, firmly speaking single vowels and consonants with considerable gaps like a slow computer ticking over, or someone learning a foreign language. Eggert’s summation perceptively conveys the interpretative experience because when ‘the final image in the opening sequence materialises into a human eye, all possiblities remain true.’ Another fine film expert Dustin Putnam draws a parallel to the beginning of our universe with his musings: ‘In this moment, much like the big bang itself, a strange and strikingly elusive young woman (Scarlett Johansson) is born anew.’ These scintillating visuals captivated me on a first viewing and grabbed my attention straight away, and it never failed to retain its grasp of my complete interest until the final credits rolled. I was invested in what Glazer was proposing in his forthcoming main chapters and it did not matter whether I understood anything on a literal, analytical level because I was so absorbed in what reviewer Jeffrey Anderson describes as the film’s ‘impressions, emotions, moods and tones.’ What followed the prologue was a continuation of those sensory pleasures.

"Under the Skin" struck me as an instant classic back in the early spring of 2014 when I emerged from the cinema screening, having entered with moderate expectations. I predicted back then that I would be unlikely to see a better film for a long time to come, for such cinematic experiences are like happening upon a fertile oasis in a vast desert terrain. In the days leading up to its general theatrical release there was much talk about the fact that the glamorous actress Johansson was finally baring her entire naked body on screen, and the objectified star began defending the nudity through media outlets in advance, warning those who felt it was only there for self-indulgent or gratuitous reasons that it was actually a decision justified by artistic merit. It is not only appropriate in the film’s two scenes where it applies, but I can’t imagine anyone watching it with an overwhelming sense of perversion, but rather a fair acceptance that the actress is blessed with an enviable figure. I could type how a fully nude Johansson strips another woman of her clothing until she too is bare-naked, but such a report could adequately disclaim the film as mere soft pornography, which is clearly not the low denominator achieved by Glazer’s mesmeric aesthetics. In the second nude scene Johansson’s character, as I will explain in more detail later, is trying almost in vain to gather an understanding of her human form, observing a surface flesh that conceals a sub-dermal truth. As Anderson puts it: ‘She simply wishes to study her skin, the shapes and textures of it, and it’s an incredible moment.’ This woman is not a human being, but in that moment she has discovered one of the fundamental assets of our species and embraced it (our endless curiosity), living like sleuths who always need to know the answers even if it brings us no obvious benefit. We even inspect every inch of our body in the mirror in the way this alien creature does, not with precise admiration or criticism but rather a thoughtful acknowledgement of the wonders to be gazed by the human form.

After the film’s strange beginning some viewers who are not looking for vague connotations in their demand for concrete denotations will have tuned out and turned their trust against Glazer. However, as the film progresses it becomes more tangible on a denotative level, yet continues fluttering with the connotative implications. She is the Woman (unlike in the source material of Michel Faber’s novel she has no identity alias) and in this instance the descriptive use of 'woman' has an inverted metonymic quality. We watch her driving around the urban streets of Glasgow alone in a van, patiently searching for prey like a succubus. Zoller Seitz refers to the plot point as ‘a mysterious woman luring men into a fatal mating dance.’ She waves down solitary pedestrians under false pretences that she is lost and requires directions. These are always young adult males and she is quick to ask particular questions during the pleasantry exchanges. She needs to know if they have any family and if they live alone. The incorrect replies leads to an unwelcome realisation, with the Woman’s foot pressing on the accelerator with immediacy in the wisdom that this conversation of small talk is a waste of time. Of course, savvy humans are well aware that most trivial conversations in life are largely uncomfortable and unnecessary, but remain formalities in unavoidable scenarios. When she does encounter a male who lives alone and has no girlfriend, like Paul Brannigan’s reciprocal shotgun seat specimen, she does not beat around the bush and with overt flirtation offers the male the opportunity to come with her in the van to her abode, with the indefinite but teasing disposition of some casual, non-committal sexual intercourse.

A telling anecdote from the principal photography shoot informs us that most of these men were filmed secretly by the filmmaker hidden in the back of the van, and they were unaware that this female was an actress, never mind a Hollywood superstar. She is portraying an alien, but she still looks a lot like her actual self, just a little 'off' with her blending choice of clothing and make-up, as you might expect from a creature who has no prior experience of how these things work. The first male that she attempts to experiment with (Kevin McAlinden) approaches the van window and after she speaks there is a noticeable pause by the man, who is seen simply regarding the Woman. This pseudo-documentary approach to filming creates a genuine layered texture. Does he wonder about her offbeat make-up application, or that shaggy jet black mane that could pass for Cillian Murphy in "Breakfast on Pluto" if you squint? Or maybe, just maybe, he does a double take because he thinks that it might be the famous actress talking to him, but surely it couldn’t be her driving about in a van in Scotland getting lost. Glazer’s status as a provocateur is confirmed by his stylistic compositions in these episodes, fastidious enough to relinquish a sense of airtight authority over everything in the frame.

Upon arrival at her lair, the foreplay seduction commences within a background of stark black that contrasts comprehensively with the earlier white background as she put on the dead woman’s clothing to cover her own body. Now she walks backwards in this pitch black venue removing her own clothing; so darkened that it could be an endless void to our spectating eyes. The red-blooded male is transfixed by her persistent stare beckoning him to follow. If any of the men who enter notice anything peculiar about the interior it becomes an afterthought, and no doubt some male spectators will feel dismayed that they should allow their behavioural actions to be led by their primal sexual urges. It is up for debate whether the hypnotic atmosphere of this unfamiliar portal has denied these men the chance to think with freedom - the exterior of the house is a wreck and evidently something extraterrestrial is harboured unknowingly inside. Glazer’s camera plunges us into the darkness with a snappy push in tracking shot, suggesting there is no turning back once their foot is in the door of this unconventional Venus fly trap. The men remove their clothing in a mirroring of the Woman’s robotic performance, but as they walk to keep pace with her they begin sinking below her, as if the floor suddenly shifted from solid to thick liquid at the passage of identities. They sink deeper into this abyss chasm while remaining in constant eye contact with the Woman, and by this point whatever para-psychological trance has been inflicted upon them they are at the complete mercy of the siren-like’s allure and luring. Once submerged in whatever lies beneath, the spell is seemingly broken and the foolishness can be gathered by the victim, knowing they have been duped by the supposed lark intentions of a desirable female conquest. These fantastical sequences have a kinship with the bizarre and uncanny sensibilities contained in the Red Room from "Twin Peaks" and no doubt Glazer spent much time precisely formulating the very essence of the mise-en-scène and its formidable formalist construction.

Unlike the opening prologue, these sequences can be interpreted in some form by almost all viewers even if there does remain the tantalising probability that there could be more going on than meets the eye, or under the skin if you will. We are inclined to speculate that the Woman either works with, for, or is protected by a quiet biker man (Jeremy McWilliams) who might also be an alien too, and it is their responsibility to ensure a consistent Catherine wheel of male suitors are constantly spun into this environment. If there is trouble understanding exactly why it has to be like this, there is no question as to the lingering subtle subtextual remarks the film is making about gender roles, innate sexual desire and lustful sinning. These moments are unforgettable, like a cherry bomb impact packing a knockout punch, and the symbolic cherry on top is the non-diegetic soundtrack, because all of it plays out in diegetic silence but the score acts as the counterpart for the temptress’ body language. Zoller Seitz feels Mica Levi’s score ‘buzzes like an otherworldly hornet’s nest,’ and Eggert adds that at a certain point it aurally mutates as it ‘eases into a haunting, exquisitely terrifying snake charmer’s theme.’ This musical compositon, I feel, supports the conviction asserted by theorist Alberto Cavalcanti that ‘picture is the medium of statement, the sound is the medium of suggestion.’ I have cited a variety of quotations from legitimate sources in this essay and the idea is to illuminate how the film is about what it is about; its visual statement is not an ostentatious lesson. Everyone will generate a highly distinctive takeaway, but the film’s enigmatic structure invites further scholarly research. For example, you might think you don’t know what occurred at a specific point but are enticed to ponder it rather than dismiss it, and not all abstract films stand up to such scrutiny. The opening sequence might leave you baffled but after reading other people’s suggestions you become aware of what subconsciously is lingering inside of your own response, by ruling out a variety of alternative assessments.

After a period of repetition and solipsism, an unexpected arrival to the alien’s vicinity late at night on a dreary Glasgow street triggers a new growth or maturity for our heroine/antagonist that decimates the familiar pattern, and segues the film into a grand thematic departure. It is the presence of the man played by Adam Pearson, who in real life has neurofibromatosis. I asked myself what the reasoning was for casting an actor with a physical deformity and whether it was artistically justified or flirted dangerously with exploitation sordidness. The metaphorical song of this peculiar siren plays out as before with the Woman attracting a new man into her van, only this time the male is genuinely only interested in politely accepting the stranger’s offer to drive him to a supermarket. Does the alien notice the contours of his visage and feel any inkling of the quality of life the man faces, as he concedes to shopping in the dead of night to avoid the cruel stares and gasps of passer-by interactions? At this stage, I would argue in the negative to such a consideration, and I hark back to an earlier harrowing scene in which she dragged an unconscious victim across a beach as a baby remained behind crying, and the connotations of such an action had zero affect on her morality. Her alien point-of-view perspective put an ocean of distance between her awareness of human suffering. Again Glazer allows us plenty of room to read the minuscule nuances of her face in that dark van as she probes further with her questioning. He is a unique anomaly, admitting to this woman that he has no friends and is a virgin, having never had the life experience of a girlfriend. The alien focuses on an aspect of his body that appears conventionally more regular to other humans, and tells him that she thinks he has lovely hands. Her words of seemingly complimentary origin hover in that van, echoing around the cramped staging and it is difficult to know how the man has reacted to it on a spiritual level. She asks him to place his hands on her leg, and almost rhetorically asks if he gained pleasure from the action and allows him permission to repeat the fragile stroking action once more if he did enjoy the sensation. Exploitative criticisms brew as we wonder how Glazer will avoid writing himself into a screenplay dead-end.

Some viewers will no doubt feel sympathy for the man based solely on his appearance - an inherent human characteristic - and if we did care a little less for the sometimes obnoxious men who met their demise in prior initiatives, Pearson’s character is so tender, gentle and meek that it touches us on a very deep level that this Woman could be so conniving and calculating as to take advantage of such a soul. Yet Glazer ping-pongs our customary thoughts by keeping the Woman at arm's length. She is being touched, but is she capable of feeling a tingling sensation herself? A later scene will show her looking with a mirror between her legs to uncover a revelation as to whether she has been fitted with a vagina, and can learn the intricacies of sexual immoral compulsions. The alien is simply doing what comes naturally to her, programmed to ensnare males for a greater cause and enslaved to avoid any deviation from this operating system. She has been designed to perform as an undercover lover but there is a plausible indication that she is incapable of actually instigating the full intercourse, mastering only the measured and meticulous foreplay role. This is gathered later in the film when she attempts to have sex with a kind man (Michael Moreland) who takes pity on her current frightened, fragile state of mind after she has swerved from being the hunter to the hunted, as symbolically conveyed by the shedding of her wolf-like coat.

The final half of the film involves the Woman escaping from her biker associate after an act of unforgivable defiance and betrayal to her own species. Although she goes through with the act, once Pearson’s character is trapped in the doomed harvest enclosure (in another breathtaking set piece we see exactly what becomes of the preceding victims - a touching of hands in this subterranean place moonlights as an unheard primal scream) the Woman dresses herself and walks away down a staircase where a small mirror catches her reflection, and for perhaps the first time she studies her features with an invigorated awakening. Whatever is realised, felt, established or provoked by her mirror image persuades this alien to free the latest victim. He has been saved, but she lacks the guile to know how much damage her defection has caused. As the naked man walks away through the wilderness he is already being targeted by the ruthless biker who has no intention of allowing a successful escape. It is possible that her change of heart occurred without precedents, though I am of the opinion it was the characteristics of the male that organically transformed the alien’s level of consciousness, as if she did actually study his contours without really knowing it and turns inward to her own concealed persona. Her fear of being unmasked is connected to the trepidation of the man with his facial deformity, and through a shared vulnerability she appreciates not only that there is a right and wrong, but also a good and bad. I suppose I could use the analogy of a human who has no sense of kinship with a particular animal until the day they see one member of the species suffering in one way or another, and then their outlook shifts in regards to the whole community. The right thing to do is to look after your own species, but it is not always the good thing to do if it is at the expense of others.

The ending of the film, involving a logger (Dave Acton), I will leave for you to experience untouched. One can imagine how inferior the film would be if it resorted to the biker magnetically tracking down the Woman as if there was a radar or a tracker attached to her skin. The images of the biker navigating the winding Scottish highlands, closing in on her whereabouts but still far from tracing her exact dwelling, are terrific gestures to a plot development that need not have closure in itself. He is the antagonist of the film and the Woman is now definitively a beloved heroine, but Glazer had always placed her in a murky relationship with the audience. For much of the film we are positioned alongside the alien: the van is filmed from the interior and never the exterior landscapes, and her elegant British accent is easier to deduce than the harsh, arguably alienesque, Scottish intonations depending on your level of dialect diversity. We feel almost as alienated as she does and we share an empathy with her when she proactively adjusts her assignment. Film critic MaryAnn Johanson propagates: ‘So she is either a nasty predator using sex as a weapon because she loves it, or a helpless victim who is being coerced… neither of which is a deviation from filmic stereotypes about women.’ Johanson's viewpoint is pertinent and by the final image, when the predator becomes the prey, some will see only a scorched-earth necessity. Many others will feel something more humanistic in the transmogrification, alongside our protagonist's expanded consciousness to the subjugation of the stereotyped female identity.

Jonathan Glazer spent much of his early career directing many cutting edge music videos in the 1990s at the peak of their popularity, and assembling television advertisements for products. I assume he was paid handsomely for these creative commercials by the companies, meaning he didn’t have to rush into feature films for a better pay day. He was 35 years-old when his debut film, "Sexy Beast" (2000) with Ray Winstone, was released to a majority of great acclaim, although at the time some felt he was copying the visual flair of a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino picture with a loose displacement to an older generation of characters. Then came the stark and provocative "Birth" four years later in 2004, starring Nicole Kidman, a film that alienated some with its weird tones, followed nine years later by the miraculous "Under the Skin" and by that point everyone took notice that Glazer was a singular auteur with a highly unusual vision, who was prepared to take his time with each passion project. He has, to date, made films that are very different in terms of theme and narrative, but his sensibilities always stand out and bland is one adjective stricken from this writer’s vocabulary while forming an evaluation of his work.

You could tell a friend in short-hand how a new film feels like a Glazer film, just as you could namedrop Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch or Yorgos Lanthimos and the prospective viewer can gauge what might be in store. All of these filmmakers have demonstrated the uncanny ability to capture human life in its mundane rituals but to exaggerate them to an extreme apex where they become subjectively alien to viewers. Currently Glazer's fourth feature is percolating in production (set to take place at Auschwitz concentration camp) and we can rejoice that at least the waiting gap between features may not be doubling as the pattern indicated thus far. I am not surprised to see how polarising "Under the Skin" remains even half a decade since its general release. It is one of the best movies of the 2010s based on critical approval grades, but on the Internet Movie Database it has a weak average audience rating, as low as anything I am likely to include in a great movie collection. I propose a comparison to the work of Kubrick that was frequently championed years later with superlatives but on a first impression garnered many divisive reactions, under an immediate nebulous response. If you enjoyed the original source novel, you may wonder why the director omitted so much of the literary narrative, but in fact the bowdlerised elements are precisely what elevates the included properties within this medium of image and sound dichotomy. It will take another decade or more before "Under the Skin" gets its deserved dues and the naysayers come around to its greatness. I envisage a future widespread consensus solidifying it in the pantheon of science-fiction classics, alongside Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) and Tarkovsky's "Stalker" (1979) as the greatest art from the genre, primarily because it transcends the genre’s iconography and presents something wholly original before us to elevate what could have been a routine sci-fi spectacle.

For all the titles in my great movies collection: letterboxd.com/davidwallace/list/great-movies-collection/

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