Review: Under The Skin

Screen

29.07.2014

Review: Under The Skin

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An anonymous woman (Scarlett Johansson) with an English accent drives a van around Glasgow. She begins by asking men for directions, then, with the implicit promise of sex, lures them one by one back to an unassuming hovel. Inside, each man, now naked, follows the woman as she disrobes, seemingly unaware that he is slowly immersing himself in a mysterious tarpit-like pool. It seems that the men are being harvested – but by whom?

Given the bizarre and grim fate of the men, it is hardly surprising that their deadly seducer is another lifeform entirely, disguised as a human. Unlike the standard sci-fi horror fare of the similarly-premised Species, director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer (whose prior work includes numerous advertisements, music videos and the feature films Sexy Beast and Birth) uses imagery and highly restrained exposition to reveal the film's real purpose of examining human society through the eyes of one utterly foreign to it. Where Sexy Beast revelled in the explosive verbal fury of Ben Kingsley’s psychotic gangster, the prolonged bouts of Johansson's character silently observing life going around her force contemplation upon the viewer.

As Johansson's character roams the landscapes of Scotland, she encounters varieties of human behaviour – curiosity, vulnerability, empathy, aggression, temptation – and starts to exhibit them herself. In portraying an emotionally impassive figure often bewildered by the world around her, Johansson is impressive. Yet the real star of the film is Glazer's ability to create mesmerising and emotionally suggestive imagery without any need for external explanation as to meaning.

On a visual level, the film is frequently astounding. In 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life, sequences resembling abstract art were used to illustrate the creation of our universe. Here, the scenes inside the deadly alien lair also take on an artistic quality – perhaps of a vast installation of conceptual art. The hypnotic slow-motion black-and-white visuals of Glazer's video  for Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit’ (Fade Out)' are also brought to mind. The suffocating atmosphere is further compounded by Mica Levi’s unnervingly relentless score.

However, the most striking parts of the film depict the harsh beauty of the Scottish countryside. A devastating scene at a stony beach shows human suffering dwarfed by the indifference of nature, while even a brief interlude at a rural bus stop creates suspense out of banks of fog.

While the film is extremely sparse on dialogue (and what is spoken is often mundane), this only increases the impact of a disturbing and tragic instance of emotional intimacy. Occasional glimpses of humour also appear amidst the gloom and dread, as the men succumb in the van to Johansson's charms with the slightest of conversation (scenes of Johansson chatting up local men were recorded undercover documentary-style, with her would-be suitors unaware they were being filmed).  This everyday urban world of shopping malls and football fans is shot with the same extreme deliberation as the surreal nightmare visions of the harvesting of human bodies, and the ominous portrayals of the Scottish wilderness. Glazer's combination of visual style and emotional weight leave images that linger in the mind for long afterwards, and confirm the arrival of a major filmmaker.



New Zealand International Film Festival: Under The Skin
D: Jonathan Glazer (UK, 2014, 108 minutes)
Buy Wellington tickets

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