Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer films don’t come along every day; three in fourteen years isn’t prolific. Such limited does, however, serve to make his pictures all the more anticipated. Glazer hasn’t yet achieved a work of the unvarnished classic status his idol Kubrick regularly delivered, but that can only be so far off. So long as he steps up his work rate a little… Stanley wasn’t taking a decade between pictures until right at the end. Under the Skin doesn’t so much conjure the precision engineering of Kubrick as the strange interior landscapes and untamed environments of Nicolas Roeg, but even that might be a wrong steer. Aspects of this alien serial killer in Scotland picture (if a hackneyed, prosaic description is what you’re looking for; that doesn’t begin to describe it) recall Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, but there’s even less willingness here to fill in the blanks for an over-literal audience. Glazer is fully immersed in his alien’s subjective gaze, and the resulting film is filled with moments of awe, strangeness, and beauty, as well as the occasional misstep.
Actors are eager to work with Glazer because they recognise a craftsman uninterested in tackling traditional subject matter, and certainly uninterested in tackling traditional subject matter in a traditional way. They know they are going to be involved in something individual, distinct, something that will test both their range and possibly also (it can’t do any harm) show them off in a different light. Sexy Beast has justifiably become a cult movie, but it’s not the heist that people remember – that is, the final act of the film – it’s the blistering assaults inflicted by Ben Kingsley’s apoplectic hood in the heat of Ray Winstone’s luxury villa. Birth, maligned but a fascinating and wilfully difficult picture to fully engage with, provides a sharp exploration of grief and our propensity to believe what we want to believe. There are those who argue for ambiguity in that film’s reveal, that a different truth is possible. They’re likely to have a field day with Under the Skin, which is determined to provide as few explanations as possible.
Here Glazer is working with Scarlett Johansson and a supporting assortment of non-actors and actors. Perhaps surprisingly, the secret filming he adopts at points is not in the aid of Borat-style laughs at the poor duped fools. It’s been done in the name of naturalism and authenticity. This is one of the few slightly broken-backed aspects of the picture. It’s the kind of artistic indulgence that sounds all very well in theory, although Glazer’s collaborators were probably nodding vigorously when he mentioned it and secretly thinking “Jonathan, Jonathan, what are you on?” The use of non-actors in acting roles works well at points (Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis, as the potential victim Johansson lets go, Dave Acton as the rapist logger in the final section).
Less successful is the hidden camera work, both in respect of the banality of the conversations struck up (hey, I guess that’s naturalism!) and Johansson being rather non-descript when called upon to improvise. The scenes rather draw attention to themselves through their lack of finesse; others may disagree, but I found it cumulatively distracting and dis-engaging. Johansson is best here when called on to reflect in silence (the flipside of Her), to observe or react when set amidst Glazer uncanny and/or mundane locations; it may be the point that wooing exchanges are awkward, but we get the idea quite quickly. And it doesn’t say much for her impartial alien that the best she can give Pearson is “You have very nice hands”. I don’t think Johansson is the greatest actress working today but she deserves credit for willingness to push herself out of her comfort zone.
Under the Skin isn’t wilfully abstruse in the way that, say, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color dares you to put together all the pieces and make all the connections (in order to show how damn clever you really are). Carruth enjoys the complexity of the puzzles and fractured narratives he creates, and as such you could never accuse his pictures of lacking depth. There isn’t much about the narrative of Skin that requires studied reflection and ponderance; what isn’t overtly described is not going to suddenly yield itself through contemplation, because there was no intention for it to be found out anyway. It’s through the filmmaking itself that Glazer reveals himself, and creates something resonant and potent. There’s also that, in a similar manner to Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the mere presence of the protagonist (as embodied by Johansson), however unforthcoming the storytelling is in revealing her, encourages identification. That’s a direct contrast to Carruth’s film, where a veil of distance hangs over its principals. This is where star casting can work in favour of atypical material, as it carries with it a quality of comparing and contrasting (however, Johanssonites are probably less likely to give what they see here a pass than Bowie fans were forty years ago).
Glazer and Walter Campbell based their screenplay on Michael Faber’s rather different 2000 novel of the same name. It appears that, along the rocky road of development, Glazer and Campbell considerably rethought their film, which initially bore a closer resemblance to Faber’s story. Brad Pitt was attached at one point, playing one of two alien farmers whose produce is human meat. Aspects of the novel remain intact, but the parallels between the men who are abducted and factory farming are downplayed. Glazer cites budgetary restraints as the primary influence for the changes, but considers the process of honing a very “elaborate” screenplay liberating. Instead of explanatory material, we remain (mostly) with Johansson’s alien viewpoint; the human world is seen askew through her untutored eyes, while helpful insights into the mechanics and directives of her familiar one are elusive.
We can glean so much, and the rest is left to interpretation. We know enough such that the importance of what we don’t is debatable. We don’t need to read the book to realise that the aliens are preying on humans (men); whether this is for the meat that ends up in giant oven-looking things or for their treated skins to wear as suits is unstated (just as its unclear whether the motorbike riding overseers represent merely shepherds guiding disparate drones like Johansson or have a greater goal, as some sort of slow burn invasion force. It appears that Johansson, or at very least her human form, is manufactured through an abstract process (the opening sequence finds her creation visually doubled with a planetary system, and we hear her learning Earth language), and she replaces a previous (female) alien unit. Presumably she too succumbed to gradual humanisation and the onset of empathy; these aliens have a limited lifespan, at least as effective tools. And surely the Phase IV-suggesting close-up of an ant is a nod to this being Johansson’s function; she is a worker serving a greater order. Her experiments with her physical veneer, establishing the limitations of possible identification with humans as her form involuntarily rejects food and sex, steer her from single-minded to vulnerable and alone.
The developments of the final act, as the girl goes off-reservation, stops seducing men, and becomes prey herself, raise a few questions that are presumably supposed to be assuaged by the too-neat reversal. Such as, why don’t her superiors create a sturdier vessel for such a dangerous activity (bringing guys back to your black gloop-filled derelict house surely wouldn’t always include those who are fully compliant and wait to be beckoned)? The lack of presented reasoning (i.e. man meat is the better food in the book) suggests this as a rather obvious commentary along the lines of gender predation; the men, even when they aren’t behaving in an overt manner, are only after one thing. In the end Johansson is reduced to the role of (classic, female) victim for understanding that her victims are more than mere animals.
It’s the encounter with Pearson that enables this, though; earlier she is unmoved by the Czech swimmer attempting to save a couple in peril at sea, and stoves his head in with a rock. When the biker clean-up crew arrives, the couple’s crying infant is left alone in the dark, unable to make tottering steps to leave the scene. It’s an enormously affecting scene, from the unblinking camera depicting the rescue attempts to the impassive eye on the unwanted infant. When not-so-angry white van woman releases Pearson unharmed, the demon biker pops up to dutifully despatch him. He at least is immune from the burden of emotional attachments.
The themes aren’t subtle then, but Glazer’s approach combining the would-be unaffected real world with the uncanny alien is consistently striking. It’s really the case of a filmmaker imbuing an idea with all its power at the production stage, as one would be hard-pressed to identify anything in the formula that stands out from your average alien-on-earth fare. Often the visuals are out-and-out stunning. It’s easy to become mesmerised by sequences, such as the daredevil motorbiking courtesy of Jeremy McWilliams, Johansson’s black void of a boudoir (the interior of the dilapidated shell of the house she leads her prey to, seemingly existing in some alternate realm), the liquid gloop that envelops her victims, the unnerving subaquatic realm they find themselves in, the location work both natural and urban, the final reveal of her true skin –as striking as Bowie’s in Man – and demise against a snow flurry. The deliberate lack of urgency to the unfolding events combined with Mica Levi’s soundtrack strings and electronica exerts an eerie, unsettling hold.
It’s easy to see why some might be put off Glazer’s film. Aside from the rigorous disinterest in an externalised narrative, he indulges in too much repetition during the first half, as Johansson’s routine of hunt and seduction goes beyond the point of idle curiosity (I did begin to wonder if there would be any shift in emphasis at all) and the dedication to naturalism can be both breath-taking (the beach scene) and floundering (the requests for directions). This is a picture where Johansson is content to show off an un-airbrushed frame, watch Tommy Cooper and listen to Deacon Blue (mercifully, she doesn’t attempt to eat the beans on toast). Glazer has made a picture that may not grant the immediate gratification of Sexy Beast or the altered states intrigue of Birth, but in its own idiosyncratic way is more impressive than either. Obscure in narrative, this is visual storytelling at its most persuasive and pervasive. If BBC2 (if it still exists then) should revive Moviedrome in another decade or so, you can be sure this will be at the front of the queue for a worshipful unveiling. Hopefully Glazer will have made at least a couple more films by that point.