You Have Been Watching…Under The Skin

When it was rumoured that Scarlett Johansson was in town shooting her latest movie I did wonder whether Woody Allen has eschewed the delights of Paris and Barcelona to pick Glasgow as the latest in his European stop offs. Although this turned out not to be the case, I would like to see that film; with Scarlett and Woody wandering round the Kelvin Grove Art Gallery discussing the merits or other wise of Jack Vettriano, all the while mispronouncing his name. As you can see, I have it all worked out in my head.

But I digress, because, as we now know, Johansson was in the city to pick up stray males of a certain age in her white van, while director Jonathan Glazer filmed her doing so. Glazer, (who has not made a film since 2003’s Birth), has taken Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name as the inspiration for his latest movie, Under The Skin.

Faber’s novel is fantastic, and you can read an assessment of it in the latest Indelible Ink Column, over at Dear Scotland, later this week, but Glazer uses it only lightly as a template for his film. Johansson plays an alien who has taken a beautiful and enigmatic form, one which seems to have been designed for picking up young men to take them back to her ‘home’. What happens next is as unexpected and odd as it is possible to imagine, even if you have read the book. I can’t go into details here. Not because I don’t want to, I just don’t think I have the words to explain what happens to these men as I’m really not 100% sure myself; you really have to see it with your own eyes. Glazer has directed a film which is 90% about the visual – whether it is the looks between Johansson and her prey, the never mentioned motorcyclists who appear to be her back-up team, or the strange and silent fate which awaits those she has taken.

For an audience, this is unsettling. By seeing everything through Johansson’s dispassionate eye, the world becomes alien to us, and even familiar sights such as revellers on Sauchiehall Street or crowds of football fans are unusual, threatening and strange. The comparisons between this human behaviour with that of animals is deliberate, and as the alien looks for victims it seems as if she struggles to understand these men, apart from being assured that they will find her attractive. The awkward, and often short, exchanges between the alien and the men are enhanced by the knowledge that some of those on screen are non-actors, unaware that they were being filmed at the time.

This is a case of the film not being better or worse than the book it comes from, but being so different as to make such comparisons unnecessary (although I would suggest consuming both as they definitely add to each other). Whereas the book touches upon issues such as modern farming and animal rights, Glazer chooses to concentrate on the themes of gender identity and sexual politics, which Faber also examines. In the opening scenes of the film, the alien is cold and clinical as she tempts her victims to their fate. The scene on the beach where she tries to comprehend a tragedy which unfolds is really disturbing and gives us an insight into her state of mind. When she picks up a stranger who is facially disfigured, he has none of the cocky assurance of the other young men she has had in her van. His situation, and story, touch something in her.

From that moment, where she recognises something of her own ‘humanity’ in this person, she is doomed. As she stares at herself in the mirror she also begins to realise that this body she is in is vulnerable, and that the power she thought she had may only be short term, and an illusion. As changes in perception go this is subtle, but devastating, and the thrilling final section of the film is truly gripping and disturbing. I won’t go into any greater detail here, as I wouldn’t wish to spoil it, except to say that when the end comes it is not entirely unexpected, and with reflection perhaps sadly inevitable.

Here’s the trailer:

There are films which the Under The Skin owes a debt to, particularly Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, but this is a singular and stunning vision and makes you long for Glazer to make more movies, especially if they are going to be of this quality. Some were surprised by the casting of Johansson in the central role, but there are few actors who do ‘disengaged observer’ better; if you don’t agree, consider Ghost World, The Girl With The Pearl Earring and Lost In Translation (another film which Glazer could have been influenced by). Under The Skin is one of the most interesting and memorable films I have seen in some time, even though there is only the slightest of plots or character development. That doesn’t matter as Glazer allows you the time to consider what you are watching on screen, and what it means. It is one of those films which make you look at the world differently when you leave the cinema, and sticks with you for days. I can guarantee you’ll think twice about accepting a lift from strangers. It seems my old gran was right all along.

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