Film of the Week: Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin takes risks starting with its very premise: it’s about a nameless alien being who adopts the physical form of a young human female and drives around Scotland picking up unwitting men to be processed as food. Take this as the pitch for a low-budget frightfest amusement, and no one would have any trouble accepting it; treat it seriously, attempt to create a genuine sense of unrest, and an audience may reject it outright. As witness the hostile or dismissive responses that greeted the film on its first screenings in Telluride and Venice—the tide turning on its recent U.K. release, which saw it acclaimed as a genuine wonder.
Under the Skin is an audacious gamble, both in its concept and in its day-to-day execution—as witness also the fact that Glazer took nearly 10 years developing the film, working with three different writers (for this final version, Walter Campbell) before arriving at a workable approach to Michel Faber’s 2000 novel. The film pares Faber’s grimly witty, altogether Swiftian fiction to the barest bones: on screen, the “heroine” loses her name, Isserley, as well as a substantial back story, including the macabre details of her forcible surgical transformation from a furless long-snouted quadruped into one of the “grotesque” upstanding two-legged creatures of Earth. Glazer and Campbell use similarly ruthless surgery in stripping out the novel’s sometimes flip humor and creating something starker and more mysterious.
One strand of Under the Skin resembles a rough-edged piece of realist cinema about a woman alone exploring an unfamiliar terrain. The film’s solitary traveller—to all appearances, an averagely good-looking young woman in jeans, a cheap furry jacket, slightly scraggy black hair—is seen walking unnoticed through Glasgow’s crowded streets and shopping malls. At one point, she enters a crowded nightclub and merges with the riotous throng, lost in red light and the throb of techno. For much of the film, we see her driving around the city’s outskirts, giving rides to young working-class Scottish men and engaging them in mundane chat, with an intensely flirtatious tone, adopting a sultry, somewhat posh English accent that tells them that, to say the least, she’s from not around these parts.
These men, as characters in a story, don’t realize that they’re being sized up as potential gourmet fodder. But by the same token, the actual men in front of the camera, nonprofessionals picked up on the spur of the moment, don’t realize that they’re in a movie—and that they’re being chatted up by none other than Scarlett Johansson. She’s not that radically disguised, after all, but you wouldn’t expect to find Scarlett Johansson driving alone around the outskirts of Glasgow, so why would anyone imagine for a second that it was her? Glazer has worked an extended thread of extremely earthbound vérité footage into a film that tells the most outré intergalactic story. He and DP Daniel Landin armed themselves with a whole arsenal of hidden micro-cameras, and had Johansson drive around and pick up men she happened to see and who spontaneously interacted with her—some diffidently, some eagerly sizing up this seemingly up-for-it posh English lass, none of them suspecting anything until a production assistant ran up afterwards and waved a release form at them. Thus the film becomes on one level a documentary about how these men react to Johansson, and on another, about how unsuspecting earthlings might behave just before being killed and canned.
At the same time, the film also becomes a commentary on something that we these days would imagine an unthinkable oddity—the idea that a major Hollywood star could descend from the firmament of celebrity and just walk around amid us mortals. But Glazer’s chosen method of filming elicits a singular and fascinating performance from Johansson, who here displays an ordinariness—itself part of the alien’s disguise—and an intensity of in-the-moment presence and nerve-ending alertness that she doesn’t often get the chance to display. Never quite knowing how her unwitting co-performers would behave, Johansson always seems manifestly aware that she’s venturing into terra incognita, just as her character is.
The spy-camera realism of the alien’s explorations and conversations take its place in an elegantly drawn tissue of more manifestly weird images. Sometimes the streets themselves become strange. As if viewed through multifaceted insect eyes, images of Earth women are superimposed on each other in a dense kaleidoscopic layering. Then there are the more spectacularly strange, artificial images that you expect from a director known for his TV ads (the Guinness horses, the exuberantly colored Sony Bravia paint explosions). This film’s wonders, however, are in a distinctly minor key: less akin to the usual efflorescences of CG illusion than to the imagination of installation art. They’re so genuinely surprising that I don’t want to describe too much, but in particular there’s the opening sequence, an abstract tone poem in white and black which, if you want to rationalize it this way, evokes an alien eye shifting into alignment, adjusting itself for Earth. Some scenes take place against pure white or black backgrounds, in places or non-places that we can’t easily identify, but which are just irreducibly other. What happens there to human bodies—how they react physically and, just as importantly, how those reactions sound—makes for one of the most unnerving and hallucinatory images in recent cinema.
One of the film’s wonders is the way that it celebrates the mundanity of earthly existence, which to the alien appears intensely strange. It’s an age-old trick, this “Martianizing” defamiliarization of human experience, going back at least to Rabelais, but there are two wonderful instances here. One is the alien’s attempt to ingest that most baroque form of earthly sustenance, the Black Forest gateau; the other her encounter with a TV phenomenon that may seem impenetrably bizarre to anyone who didn’t grow up in Britain in the 1960s or ’70s—the fez-wearing comedian and professional inept conjurer Tommy Cooper.
Another strand of uncanny DNA running through the film is the score by young British composer Mica Levi, known for her intractably angular neo-pop recordings as Micachu and the Shapes. A repeated three-note theme—like the silky film noir signature of a femme fatale, but harmonically distorted into something like a shriek—recurs among string patterns that echo modernists like Ligeti and Penderecki, occasionally underpinned by a machine-gun pulse.
This frightening, unearthly film is the most striking achievement yet by a director whose first two features Sexy Beast (00) and Birth (04) were not quite fully realized, but suggested a will to unearth the strangeness within familiar genre forms. Under the Skin is not only genuinely experimental but feels authentically alien—almost something that a documentarist from another world might have shot here on a field mission.
Yet the film has a surprising way of evoking what it is to be human: to be vulnerable, corporeal, to feel the weight and fragility of your bodily reality. One of the alien’s passengers is a man with extreme facial disfigurement; you may assume you’re seeing a prosthetic or digital effect, but in fact he’s played by the actor Adam Pearson, who has a condition called neurofibromatosis. The film might seem initially to be exploiting Pearson’s appearance for shock effect, or to be reworking a tired Beauty and the Beast trope: in fact, the disjunction between how we expect the alien to perceive the man, and how she actually does see him and speak to him, offers a transforming mirror to our own preconceptions of physical appearance.
As for Johansson’s own physicality, she has one of the most surprising nude scenes you could imagine from a female star, especially one who has been so obsessively fetishized as an icon of hyper-glam unreality. Seen full-length from the side, like one of the naked figures in a Muybridge study, Johansson is a million miles away from the digitally varnished fantasy of, say, the Avengers posters. Instead she’s oddly squat, a little short-legged, and entirely, appealingly ordinary—Scarlett Johansson unplugged, or unphotoshopped. But then that body, in this story, is a mere borrowed disguise, a flimsy shell as disposable as a rubber glove. What this says about Scarlett Johansson as a physical organism, and as a star, a hallucinatory on-screen “effect,” is something I suspect we’ll be reading dissertations about for years to come.