At the heart of Jonathan Glazer's third feature is an alien being discovering a corner of our Earth (in this case, Scotland). The British director's adaptation of Michel Faber's novel is itself an alien being, exploring methodically the possibilities of film to tell a story shorn of all traditional narrative landmarks, emulating its character's process of exploration and discovery as it observes and collects evidence.
While there is clearly some sort of narrative arc in Under the Skin, it's not so much a traditional, classical narrative as it is a strangely disquieting, uncomfortable look at what makes us human seen through the glacially indifferent eyes of a foreigner (and "alien" still is a synonym for "foreigner") who doesn't seem to be able to understand or comprehend humanity - or maybe simply doesn't want to until it's forced to. To be human is to change, and Under the Skin is the story of an observer that changes, that starts taking part, a predator that allows itself to become prey.
All of this, however, is easier written than seen, as Mr. Glazer's approach is to simply eject every possible element that might ground the viewer. No characters are ever given names or identities, as if they're simply archetypes or examples; why the alien is on the Earth, what does it do with the young men (all bachelors whose absence wouldn't be noted) it seduces then traps in some sort of sleek black amber, where does it come from, all is left unexplained. Instead, Under the Skin just unfurls like a purely sensory experience, with nothing for the viewer to hold on to; just Scarlett Johansson's physical presence, almost like an empty vessel allowing herself to be filled by whatever lies on anyone's mind, and the meticulously exquisite orchestrating of the many audio-visual elements at Mr. Glazer's disposal.
The film becomes an almost dialogue-free experiment, reminiscent of the psychedelic midnight movies and head-trips of the 1970s, but given a resolutely contemporary gloss by the director's textured, evocative handling. It reminds all at once from Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Roeg (and particularly his 1976 cult movie The Man who Fell to Earth), vintage Hammer films, Ken Russell, David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovski or Marguerite Duras, but like its alien seductress that is at the same time unique and banal, it creates its own personal magic. Whatever it is that Mr. Glazer is aiming at with this formally breathtaking object, the one undoubted definition is that it is cinema - an audio-visual-narrative experience that could not exist in any other art form.
Whether you like it, ot not, is beside the point; Under the Skin isn't an easy film to like, let alone enjoy. But it's a stunning achievement, proof positive of Mr. Glazer's singular, unique vision as a filmmaker; and that something as uncompromising as this has been made in a day and age where conformity seems to be the modus operandi of film financiers is, in itself, cause for celebration.
UNDER THE SKIN
United Kingdom, USA, Switzerland 2013
Cast Scarlett Johansson
Director Jonathan Glazer; screenwriters Walter Campbell and Mr. Glazer; based on the novel by Michel Faber Under the Skin; cinematographer Daniel Landin (colour); composer Mica Levi; designer Chris Oddy; costumes Steven Noble; editor Paul Watts; sound designer Johnnie Burn; effects supervisors Tom Debenham and Dominic Parker; producers James Wilson and Nick Wechsler, Filmfour, British Film Institute, Nick Wechsler Productions and JW Films in co-production with Sigma Films, in association with Creative Scotland, Filmnation Entertainment and Silver Reel
Screened April 15th 2014 (distributor advance screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, Lisbon)