Released back in March, Jonathan Glazer’s latest film Under the Skin is one that has been praised by critics but panned by “cinema-goers”. I’m not a big fan of overly-pretentious crap that tries too hard. Either I lack the patience or the capacity to read into ambiguous shots of nothing and drawn out sequences that revolve around random imagery and convoluted editing. So Under the Skin’s theatrical trailer didn’t especially sell me. That being said, the premise of an alien “succubus” prowling and luring the simple-minded folk of Glasgow to be processed into a delicacy back home, is one that is hard to overlook. And then there’s the whole “never judge a book by…..” proverb which I’ve unfortunately forgotten to abide by a few times.
Originally a book written by Michel Faber, Under The Skin had a rather turbulent pre-production span. The screenplay changed hands between numerous writers and underwent constant tweaking too. Taking a step back from the uncomfortable detail and ferocity of the book, Jonathan Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell have maintained the shocking and unsettled nature of the novel, but have used the visual essence of the film to create a “dreamscape” exploring the realms of surrealism, ambience and ambiguity. This might sound pretentious enough, but Under The Skin remains an “experience” above all else. Yes there’s a narrative and a basic three act structure, but to categorise it would be a challenge. Loosely blending elements from horror, sci-fi, thriller and drama, even after watching it twice I still can’t determine it’s genre.
Scarlett Johansson’s performance is one of subtly. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s “iconic”, as some have commended, she proves to be an enchanting temptress, managing to convey the alien’s changing temperament towards humanity and “her” occupation. While her blank expressions, and failed concept of human interaction can be slightly awkward at times, she strangely builds a sympathetic angle towards her situation. That being said, there really isn’t a true “character” in the film. The supporting cast, which consists of a mixture of professional actors and the actual “hapless victims“ from the streets of Glasgow, don’t leave a lasting impression. But that’s to be expected with a plot of an extraterrestrial stalking young males to their cold and isolated doom.
Glazer has employed both atmosphere and tension to create a production that’s captivating and engaging. Under The Skin presents this through both its soundtrack and imagery. Mica Levi’s soundtrack is one that further adds to the general unease of the film. The three note melody of long stringed notes and altered pitch, mixed with plodding percussion provides a hypnotic trance that sends chills down the spine. The entire soundtrack for that matter, creates a surreal and rather uncomfortable atmosphere that matches perfectly with the film’s dreamy cinematography and the actual events that take place. The track “Love” perfectly demonstrates the flowing and transforming nature of the story and personality, with a blend of drawn out inflections in tone and intensity.
The overriding aura of pretentious filmmaking is one that the film narrowly avoids. The use of overly long, panning and random wide shots are still here, but a wise level of restraint has been employed. The varied and beautiful landscapes of Scotland are tinted into a dreary haze that conceals the hidden disposition and dangers in each location. And the visual styling towards the actual “harvesting-process” is simply stunning. My only issue is the lack of explanation. We easily comprehend the basic story the film presents, but it becomes overly difficult and cryptic to fully understand the events, especially in the third act. I like a film with ambiguity, but there’s a certain point where it can cause a loss in focus or purpose and Under The Skin’s ambiguity is near fatal. While I myself was still able to produce a smile as the credits rolled, I’m not sure others will share the same admiration and sentiment.
Under The Skin will undoubtably be on my favourites list of 2014. While I can understand many’s frustration towards the film’s pretentiousness, I feel that it just about avoids “flying up its own arse”. A strong performance by Scarlett Johansson, and the film’s hypnotic shifts to the senses, Under The Skin is an experience that left me deeply satisfied but slightly traumatised. There are easy ways to turn this concept into an action film or an X-Files episode (I’m sure there’s probably been one). But Glazer has crafted something that looks and sounds distinct and entrancing. With an unnerving soundtrack and some gorgeous cinematography, Under The Skin isn’t one to take lightly.