When was the last time you looked into the eyes of a stranger and really considered what lies under the skin? Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is an experimental odyssey unlike any film in recent memory due to its outlandish form, unusual in an English-language film. This is a true art film with strong elements of sci-fi taken from the novel its based on by Michael Faber (unread by me). The plot cannot really be discussed, as the film is more interested in the rhythms of the central character’s daily life. There are powerful moods conveyed by its probing camerawork on the streets of Glasgow, as we follow the fates of the unfortunate men that Laura (Scarlett Johansson), a shape-shifting alien, seduces only to see them experience a bizarre and horrific end. There are several ambiguous and mystifying events along the way that I do not feel qualified to talk about on a first viewing alone.
The resulting film is centered on a transformative performance by Hollywood actor Scarlett Johansson, who when seen on the streets of Glasgow, really does seem to have come from a different planet. Her sterling work grounds the film’s heady themes, touched upon in Glazer’s previous films Sexy Beast and Birth, of dysfunctional sexual desires and a fixation on flesh whilst allowing for a fresh, and at times maddeningly oblique, dissection of human identity and alienation. Now while this may make the film lose appeal by sounding so difficult and cerebral, this is how cinema should be: intellectually stimulating whilst also viscerally powerful, leading to a feeling of almost nervous exhaustion by the film’s end.
The film’s aesthetic conveys a familiar world through very unfamiliar eyes to startling effect. From cluttered compositions featuring the daily bustle of Scottish city life to claustrophobic long takes inside Laura’s van, and finally nightmarish scenes in which Glazer’s sensual approach becomes erotically stimulating without ever resorting to misogynistic exploitation. There are several images that I shall never forget, and nor shall I forget the feelings they evoked in me, for this emotional impact is just as important as the film’s stylish precision.
Those uninterested in aliens or the sci-fi premise should bear in mind how universal the film is. After all when do we most feel alienated from another human’s internal feelings and humanity than when we sexually desire them. This is how a film, with a completely detached and unknowable protagonist, becomes so powerful and affecting as, after all, those strangers we walk past or stand next to at the bus stop on a daily basis rarely become more than aliens to us, as we only look at the surface and never comprehend what is happening under the skin. This is the genius of this very strange film and why it is a masterpiece.
Under the Skin (2013), directed by Jonathan Glazer, is released in the UK by StudioCanal, Certificate 15.