Permission to exhale | Under the Skin

Under the SkinIf Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac implores us to “forget about love“, then Jonathan Glazer’s acid-sharp body-snatcher thriller Under the Skin seems to be asking us to forget about sex too, at least “as we know it”, both in real life and movie convention.

Adapting Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, Glazer casts Scarlett Johansson as a woman on a mission to seduce and kill as many male Glaswegians as she can manage, working on the orders of what appears to be an unsavory research team of some kind (whether they’re aliens or just morally bereft scientists is never really spelled out in the film itself).

Beyond that, however, the audience is as much in the dark as Scarlett’s victims (the protagonist is never named), and this is the key to the film’s appeal: a journey through complete emotional disconnect which seems to suggest that something may just be developing around its edges.

Species it certainly ain’t, but is it just an art house variant of the cheap slasher film?

Throughout the film’s first half – which I would perhaps somewhat paradoxically argue is its strongest – one is tempted to answer “yes” to that question. Though devoid of cheap thrills and ultimately meandering – and therefore non-sensational – in how it presents the predator-prey encounters, Glazer knows how to calibrate our response to imminent menace, and his finely-tuned aesthetic sense is exploited for terror wonderfully here.

Playing into – rather than playing up – Johansson’s status as a Hollywood sex icon, Glazer derives both suspense and humour from the central conceit (ScarJo cruising for men).

A key scene, which takes place on a beach, will probably be among the most-discussed segments of the film. Actually not spurned by an ostensibly sexual encounter, it’s a depiction of complete callousness that cuts to the bone, with our (alien or otherwise) protagonists looking on impassively as tragedy unfolds right in front of them.

The scene is also another example of Glazer’s calculated vision. It’s a mathematical arrangement of unpleasant details: crashing waves over a dangerously rocky beach, a thwarted rescue, a screaming child left behind. Genuinely gripping, or just well-curated contrivance? It really is up to you to decide, and I think that a film which exists on such finely-tuned polarities is worth exploring.

That said, its second half is substantially weaker. A plot development is allowed, which – perhaps necessarily, perhaps not – deflates some of the tension and attempts to wrestle with themes that deserve a full film in their own right, not the tail-end of one.

But that an aura of mystery is maintained throughout can certainly be appreciated, and in developing the idiosyncratic atmosphere of the film, Glazer owes much to composer Mica Levi, whose score is by turns minimal and overwhelming (the signature tune bursts in almost as if it’s been snuck out of an Italian ‘giallo’).

But it’s Johansson, of course, who turns out to be his bravest and most consistently compelling collaborator. The Guardian’s Leo Robson used “prick her and she doesn’t bleed” to describe her performance, and I won’t bother trying for a more economical or apt descriptor. This isn’t a wooden performance masquerading as ‘laconic’ or ‘depressed’; this really is a consistent, stark display of non-being.

Though Faber’s (and now Glazer’s) story is at its core an old one – think Frankenstein, better still, think Pinocchio – Glazer is to be commended for going full-bore against that most comfortable of narrative short-hands: making characters and situations ‘relatable’.

Chilly and immersive in a way that can only be fully experienced on the big screen, Under the Skin is a sinister blank canvas. What you see most definitely not what you get. Or is it?

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Under the Skin will be showing at St James Cavalier, Valletta on 28 June and 3 July

Got the Itch | Under the Skin

 

Under the Skin

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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

Click here to book your tickets.