Jonathan Glazer made a name for himself in the 90s with music videos for the likes of Radiohead and Massive Attack, before directing Sexy Beast and Birth. Both of those features were distinctive; the former for its standout performance from Ben Kingsley, the latter for its pronounced Kubrickian sterility. Now, nearly a decade later, Glazer brings us Under The Skin, the long-gestated adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, and with it he boldly bids to secure a place among the great cinematic auteurs.
Glazer’s open-hearted ambition to be thought of in the same breath as the likes of Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch or the aforementioned Stanley Kubrick has already been long evident in his work. His music videos were resplendent with motifs lovingly cribbed from his obvious favourites, while Sexy Beast occasionally drifted into playful surrealism. But even taking into account Birth‘s stern, style-over-substance visual framework, few would’ve guessed that Glazer was about to make a move as confident as this. Make no mistake, Glazer the cinematic artist is here and, if you’ll let him, he’s about to get under your skin.
The film’s plot, such as it is, concerns a mysterious woman (played by Scarlett Johansson) who cruises Scotland in a van, seemingly without particular direction, picking up male hitchhikers. These lucky men soon find themselves out of their depth – quite literally – as Johansson’s character (named Isserley in Faber’s novel but left unnamed here) is revealed to be a disarming alien predator. And not like the kind Arnie might take on in the jungle.
Glazer’s approach here defies conventional expectations to a fault, delivering a singular experience which will enthrall and repel in equal measure. Defiantly colliding some exquisitely precise set-ups with a selection of off-the-cuff candid camera moments (as Johansson genuinely accosts unassuming Glaswegian citizens), Glazer’s film seems like it shouldn’t work at all. Against all odds however, the two contrasting styles blend beautifully, building an aura of menace and pronounced wrongfulness which is underpinned by a sensational score by Mica Levi.
Levi’s music, like Glazer’s method, ricochets with influences from other films, reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s juddering scores for Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as the otherworldly audio horrors dreamed up by Krzysztof Penderecki. It’s the perfect fit for the outsider attitude Glazer creates here. Each cue feels like an electron firing through Johansson’s distinctly alien mind. Quite what those electrons are adding up to we are left to interpret as Glazer ruthlessly strips away any semblance of exposition.
Key to all of this is Johansson, whose performance here will likely be considered the most instantly iconic of her career thus far. She displays steely poise throughout, sculpting for herself a restlessly inquisitive and totally dangerous enigma. A femme fatale from beyond our experience. Her natural beauty contrasts to the dour skies, cumbersome van and the dreariness of the surroundings Glazer places her in. Her pronounced superstar status works to the film’s advantage; we already consider her as separate from us. To see her asking directions to a post office from the shell-suited Scottish working class instinctively feels in some way extraordinary.
It allows Glazer’s film to provoke questions about the nature of celebrity, but also – more acutely – about the nature of beauty, our perception of it, our obsession with it, and the lengths we will go to attain it. Under The Skin lives up to its name; as the film progresses, more and more conundrums seep through the pores, Glazer teases them to the forefront of our consciousness.
The approach will not suit all viewers. Anyone turning up expecting a kooky indie movie lured by the prospect of some celebrity skin is likely to be left cold by Glazer’s icy sci-fi lullaby. Under The Skin is defiantly niche, brazenly specialist and totally distinctive, even as it conjures up the ghosts of other features – particularly cult favourites like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eraserhead and especially Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Johansson here might even be a long-lost relative of David Bowie’s Thomas Newton, albeit one who has come to Earth on a far less altruistic mandate.
Yet more questions are prickled by the strange encounters in Under The Skin. Is any motive completely selfless? To what degree are the men who become victims here complicit in their fates? Johansson’s sexually assertive yet emotionally inert maneuvers provide a thrilling provocation. In the audience we are left to imprint the film with our own suspicions of motive or intent. Some may find this too vague, others will feel rewarded by how freeing all this is.
If it stopped there, it’d have been fine, but Johansson changes the rules, and in it’s second half Under The Skin grows more ambitious, questioning the very things that make us who we are. It’s a methodical process of evolution, but an important one, and Glazer openly invites his audience to participate.
Participating in Under The Skin can be hard at times. Events are episodic, deliberately slow, even repetitive, inviting listlessness. While a disturbing encounter on a choppy shore will no doubt leave an unsavoury taste in many mouths. Like the most divisive films of cinema’s most memorable auteurs, Under The Skin refuses to apologise for itself. There were walk-outs when I saw it and I’m not surprised. Consider yourself warned.
And yet, even so, Glazer’s defiance in providing a more easily digestible entity is entirely fitting to the story being told and the mood being created. Under The Skin detaches the viewer from the identifiable shapes of conventional filmmaking, evoking an alien approach to such banal locations as shopping malls and roadside cafes. Watching the film is like discovering our trivial routines anew, from a removed perspective. This detachment may not suit all, but for those willing to succumb to the mysteries of what makes us human, there won’t be anything else like it – or to rival it – this year.
Like it or not, Glazer has, in one glorious, ballsy leap, aligned himself with the greats he’s previously spent his career aping. Time to step out of the shadows and into the limelight.