If you’ve ever seen and enjoyed Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie, or the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick, you might like the film I saw last night. It was a last minute decision, as a Saturday night plan had fallen through; I ran over to the cinema and got a ticket for Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, and based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, published in 2000. It is a film from director Jonathan Glazer, whose only other two major cinema outings have been Sexy Beast and Birth. As Birth was released in 2003, you can see that Glazer spent a long time getting Under the Skin just right; apparently the final idea for the film came to him quite quickly and significantly late on, and is a much stripped back and intense vision than the one we may have got (which Brad Pitt was signed up for at one point, or so the story goes).
Under the Skin was the most intense cinema experience I’ve had in years. I’m still thinking about it. Some parts of the film are so genuinely uncanny, and really disturbing, that I did stop to wonder what I’d just spent my money on. Yet because of that, and not in spite of it, I was engaged throughout. Also, it looks marvellous; not pretty, but always coldly beautiful. The cinematography brings the bleak Scottish countryside into the film as almost a separate character, who dominates most scenes with her lonely presence. Every scene seemed to have something to say.
Johansson is presumably an extraterrestrial on some ambiguous mission to harvest humans (which she does in a siren-esque way, picking up blokes in her transit van). How they are transported to a surreal other world of blackness is never explained, sinking as they do into some form of preserving liquid, as Johansson’s succubus steps ever backwards, unaffected by the trap; leading the men trance like to their doom. Lust as a weapon. However, she appears to develop a conscience about half way through, and abandons her predatory assignment, disappearing into the Scottish countryside, with her ‘minder’ trying to find her, perhaps before she does anything stupid.
There is a lot I had to presume in Under the skin, as the film offers no certain answers. It does clearly present a creature sent to take advantage of us, who then becomes first fascinated by us and then eager to experience what it might be like to be us. Her attempt to eat Black Forest gateau in a roadside restaurant is amusing and strange; she cannot physically swallow the food and coughs it up. Here, as in her many moments of dispassionate blankness, Johansson is a marvel. Whatever being she is meant to be, and wherever she is from, I never loathed the character. Rather, her alien qualities, as a fish out of water, and the very fact she looks like Scarlett Johansson, seemed to make her all the more alluring; but surely that was the point. Who expects to see Johansson in Glasgow?
Honestly, it was brilliant, but a real mind messer. I’m still thinking about it today. The part where Johansson’s ‘alien’ takes her ‘human skin suit’ off is genuinely jolting; it is that not often experienced place between the visually captivating, and the simultaneously strange, that is actually slightly terrifying; a true moment of the uncanny. Throughout, Mika Levi’s minimalist and experimental score lifts the strangeness further, and is the other notable star of the film.
Under the Skin is not for everyone; at least two people left the auditorium long before the first hour was through. Essentially static images of snowfall and trees may not engage a more restless action seeking audience, and surreal existential imagery blending sex and death aren’t for everyone on a Saturday night, that is for sure. But it is bleakly beautiful and unnervingly fascinating, and stops us to ponder what it means to be human. It made me think and feel, and that’s as good a reason to see any film.