Cinema review: Under The Skin



The film tells its story through images rather than exposition.

By Jaskaran Bahia

In adapting Michael Faber’s acclaimed novel, director Jonathan Glazer has produced something enigmatic, beautiful, haunting and entirely unique.

The film plays out as if Ken Loach and Stanley Kubrick had each been given a brief about an alien huntress preying on the men of Glasgow, and the two halves had been edited together in a fascinating mix of naturalism and abstract sci-fi.

But to describe the film in terms of other filmmakers would be to do a disservice to Glazer who, between this and previous films Birth and Sexy Beast, has forged a career showing his work is nothing if not bold.

One of the most admirable features of the film is its dedication to telling its story through images rather than exposition – the film could have near the same impact if it were silent. As it is, the dialogue is minimal but the images are potent, whether it be through our alien’s face appearing through a golden sea of humanity, the extreme stylisation of seduction, or a finale wherein the distinct styles clash in chilling fashion.

In abandoning clunky expository dialogue or the novel’s internal monologue, the film rests on Scarlett Johansson’s central performance. Luckily, she turns in some of the most impressive work of her career. In some ways reminiscent of David Bowie’s iconic performance in The Man Who Fell To Earth, her character seems appropriately detached from her both her experiences and her body.

Donning a posh English accent (learned in the films striking opening moments) and a crow black wig, her character is designed to be as exotic and alien as Scarlett Johansson trawling the streets of Glasgow for young men should seem. Successfully portraying unnaturalness in a naturalistic setting, as Johansson does in the scenes where she picks up men from the streets of Glasgow in her van, is quite a feat.

Moreover the performance seems almost anti-physical. Much of the publicity for the film prior to its release focused on the aspect of nudity, but often the film treats this showing of skin just as the alien does – as a suit to be worn and used for a purpose, but unconnected to its core, (at least, at the start of her character arc). Anytime Johansson’s character is touched the results are disappointment or disaster.

Between this, her entirely disembodied performance in Her, and her hugely physical performance in Captain America (all catsuits, capoeira, and scars), Johansson has recently explored quite the range of bodily extremes on screen in recent months.

Mention must go to Mica Lev’s excellent score. Filled with discordant tones, the music holds the film together in its eeriness and ensures the audience is never quite comfortable.

It’s entirely possible viewers could be put off by the lack of clarity or the deliberate pace, and it is true some sections of the film work better than others (a vignette involving a young man with neurofibromatosis is particularly affecting, while other encounters are less so), but for those who can embrace the elusive nature of the narrative, the film will live long in the memory.

Under The Skin is now showing at the HMV Curzon, 23 The Broadway, Wimbledon

Photo courtesy of Clevver Movies via YouTube, with thanks.       

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