Scarlett Johansson is dropped into Glasgow dressed as any other woman and ready to be picked up by the nearest gentlemen. Jonathan Glazer, the director, follows her with a string of hidden cameras, and turns the street into a theatre. A fiction about desire, the object of wonder, and that pale extraordinary woman with red lips who just happens to take a fancy to the passer by.
Good news: my adoptive country will be getting to see the Scarlett Johansson-starring, Jonathan Glazer-directed Under the Skin from this Friday onwards, by which time it would hopefully have not hit the pirate networks and will entice a generous-enough audience to St James Cavalier in Valletta, where it will be showing for a total of six screenings from mid-June to early July.
Glazer’s film – based on the book of the same name by Michael Faber, whose prose has previously been adapted into BBC’s rather good ‘R-rated Dickens’ mini-series The Crimson Petal and the White (2011) – has intrigued me for quite some time, not least because of its seemingly arch approach to genre: it seems to have elements of both sci-fi and horror, but the overall arc of it appears to suggest something ultimately undefinable and definitely eerie.
It also appears as though the team behind the film – and this includes the star herself – appear to be keen to strip the glamour off Scarlett Johansson’s persona.
This interests me because a) it appears to play against the way stars are constructed these days, which is only a metonym for how we consume and internalize them; and b) it’s a reminder that Johansson wasn’t always a sex goddess (remember Ghost World?) and that her on-screen transformation into one was, I think, signaled quite clearly with that opening shot of Lost in Translation. Does it mean it can be unmade just as easily now?
By making her play an alien who preys on men, will Jonathan Glazer succeed in letting her career and aesthetic direction develop into something more substantial?
Either way, Glazer will always have the benefit of being a curio, of being someone who operates from at least one remove from the standard Hollywood system; even, perhaps, beyond the indie film festival carousel.
His music video CV is thicker than his feature-filmography, which suggests that he can’t be bothered with the grind of narrative cinema and its corresponding industry, only approaching a project if it really interests him through and through.
There’s always risk involved here (music video directors-turned-feature film directors run the gamut from dazzling to dire), but this makes them an interesting phenomenon either way.
Personally I found his debut Sexy Beast (2004) to be a style-over-substance kind of experience. Save Ben Kingsley’s blistering turn as a deranged gangster who pays (an ultimately unwelcome) visit to his former colleagues’ idyllic island getaway, the film could easily have been directed by Guy Ritchie – the Brit-gangster tropes are very much in place (with iconic tough guy Ray Winstone leading the show, they can’t help but be) and the narrative is thin.
Birth (2004), on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish entirely. The premise grabs you: Nicole Kidman’s husband comes back to life in the body of a 10-year-old boy just as she’s about to get remarried.
But instead of being blunt or exploitative, it’s a delicate experience; the music and the affluent and snow-capped New York surroundings making the whole thing feel like a fairy tale. And here fairy tale does not mean Disney cartoon with a happy ending tacked on; it means the simple but ominous build-up of otherworldly doom that suffuses the story as each element of it clicks inevitably into place.
Different as they are, what both Sexy Beast and Birth share is the theme of an intruder disrupting our protagonists’ comfort. You could say that Glazer enjoys existing – or, at least, of telling stories – in this zone of discomfort.
In terms of Glazer’s archetypes, so far we’ve had Nemesis (Sexy Beast), a Ghost (Birth) and now we have an Alien (Under the Skin).
The latter promises to be the most foreign, the most unsettling. Let’s hope it lives up to its title. Because we’re all masochists at heart, aren’t we?