“Pretentious” is a word that has been heavily linked to Jonathan Glazer’s skeletal adaptation of Michel Faber’s sci-fi novel. And while it’s not hard to understand this criticism, Under The Skin was the only film that I felt warranted a second viewing. Inarguably a challenge to fully comprehend, the film’s somewhat basic plot is hurled into an intense atmosphere of unease and dread skilfully crafted by the film’s visuals and the haunting score. While it has proven to be a polarising affair between critics and audiences, Under The Skin’s trance-like approach was one of the year’s best cinema “experiences”, and I emphasise the use of term “experience”.
Those looking for a conventionally structured sci-fi story, will be undoubtably frustrated by the film’s general lack of substance. Taking fragments from the original novel, Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell never truly delve into the novel’s original structure of internal monologues from the alien seductress and her victims. The result is a purposely worked ambiguity to the whole feature that offers uncertainty rather than definitive answers. With the absence of extensive dialogue, Scarlett Johansson’s performance is mainly conveyed through body language and subtly. And it’s a relatively strong one.
Visually, Under The Skin has a distinct, dreamy wash throughout. From the actual “harvesting” process to the aggressive nature of the film’s Scottish locations, the film is simply stunning. Long, drawn out shots of scenery, and the sparsity of cuts are unfortunate stereotypes of “art house” cinema and while they’re present here, they’re used with a sincere level of restraint. Scotland’s wilderness and cityscapes offer a striking contrast in flux with the changing demeanour of the film. Meanwhile the radiant light from car dashboards and Glasgow’s street lights highlights interesting perspectives and temperaments. Coupled with this is the soundtrack. Mica Levi’s score is strangely hypnotic and suitably haunting, with long drawn-out strings and sharp shifts in tone that complements the surreal nature of the visuals. It’s probably my favourite soundtrack of the year.
A genuinely unnerving and intense affair, Under The Skin was more an experience than a film per say. Patience is paramount as the visuals and the score flood the senses, leaving a grin to cover for a slightly traumatised psyche.