Under the Skin

It is rare for me to finish a film and be unable to form any real opinion on it. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, loosely based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, is a film that deliberately defies easy understanding. It is a befuddling, enigmatic and contradictory work that demands total engagement from its audience as it avoids all the trappings of a conventional movie. Yet after I left the theatre, both impressed and disappointed, I have been unable to shake the film from my thoughts.

It is a film of surprising contrasts - it is simultaneously mesmerising yet tedious, surreal yet mundane, erotic yet sterile. It is this internal conflict that makes the film so difficult to truly get a handle on as your feelings constantly fluctuate; frequently within the same scene. Yet the friction makes it one of the most unpredictable, exhilarating and memorable cinematic experiences of recent years as the film slowly gnaws away at you.

The plot, about a predatory alien travelling the streets of Glasgow and luring unsuspecting men into her trap with the promise of sex, is the stuff of hokey B-movie nonsense with cheap titillation and even cheaper sets. However, Glazer creates a haunting study of humanity through the eyes of an otherworldly visitor. Abstracting the novel’s plot to disorienting degrees he has created a film as alien as its central seductress as the audience is required to fill in the many gaps.

Under the Skin is a disquieting experience that lingers long after the abrupt closing credits. It displaces the audience, allowing them to view our familiar world with new, extra-terrestrial, eyes. It is a film that captures the best and worst of humanity through a dispassionate observer who is gradually awakened to the strange wonders around her. The film’s deliberate rhythm reflects the drudgery of her work and of human existence. As she drives around, inconspicuous in a white van, the routine becomes strangely hypnotic before the audience is shaken from a somniferous state by a series of startling images.

It is impossible to adequately convey the impact that some of the film’s sequences possess. Glazer brilliantly contrasts drab everyday scenes with striking and incomprehensible alien imagery. These sequences are surreal, dazzling and unforgettable. Whether or not you take anything meaningful from the film is debatable but there are several moments that are sure to leave an indelible impression.

In Scarlett Johansson, Glazer has found the perfect vessel for such an enigmatic central character. There is something wonderfully odd about the most glamorous screen siren of our age slipping unnoticed amongst the throngs of Glasgow’s shoppers. She is a malleable figure, watching and reacting to the strangeness of our species before gradually exploring what it means to be human. It’s a challenging role that requires her to be both distant yet connected to the audience and she manages it brilliantly.

Glazer is exploring new uncharted territories with this latest film. Although there are glimpses of Kubrick, Lynch and Roeg in the film’s fantastical imagery and alienating atmosphere it never feels beholden to the past. Instead, Glazer pushes forward challenging the possibilities of the medium whilst leaving the audience floundering in his wake. He makes no concessions, this is a singular work that will either be embraced or violently dismissed and it seems the director openly welcomes such visceral and contrasting opinions from the audience.

The film is a unique sensory experience. The blending of the avant-garde with documentary-realism is jarring yet haunting and it never allows the viewer to truly settle. Daniel Landin’s cinematography turns a familiar Scotland into a strange alien world that is reinforced by Mica Levi’s discordant and nervy orchestral score. Whilst the film can resemble a prolonged music video at times as an audio-visual exercise it is nothing short of staggering.

Criticisms of pretentiousness are destined to plague the film but it leaves so much up to the audience’s interpretation and imagination that any self-importance is entirely in the eye of the beholder. For me, the film’s greatest issue is not its perceived pretentiousness or arty abstraction but its monotonous tone. Foregoing a traditional narrative structure it never really builds any sort of momentum. The structure may mirror the humdrum repetition of the protagonist’s existence but it is a rather flat experience that only really engages when you’ve had time to reflect on what you’ve watched.

Rating Under the Skin is practically impossible but the more time I let the film and images swim around my head the more I sorta, maybe, love it.

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