Under The Skin – A (spoiler free) Review

March 21, 2014 9:38 am

The divisive film of 2014 may have just been released. (We are only three months in after all). Jonathan Glazer’s third feature length film, after the Oscar nominated Sexy Beast in 2000 and Birth four years later, Under The Skin is adapted from the Michael Faber novel of the same name published 14 years ago and starts Scarlett Johansson in the lead role as the unnamed feeling prowling the streets of cities in Scotland – Glasgow and Arbroath – for unwary hitchhikers.

Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell dispense with the twist of Faber’s novel by revealing it in the opening frames of the film, deigning to create a different emotional connection and expectation to Johansson’s character, one of perhaps sympathy or pity, as her motivations remain unknown and the audience is treated to a bourgeoning sense of understanding and recognition beneath the vacant solitude of her situation, complete with an uneasy partnership(?) with motorcycle riding Andrew played by Paul Brannigan. Only after consulting IMDb are character names made known; the closing credits simply list the actors’ names.

Some of the reactions in the film are from members of the public with filming courtesy of hidden cameras. Johansson wanders through a shopping centre incognito and proceeds to ask for directions throughout the film from the driver’s seat of her Ford Transit van. Glazer believed this was crucial to her character’s wish for assimilation as she was a Hollywood A-lister attempting to blend in with her surroundings and appear unremarkable. She never reaches the destination requested as either the ploy to lure the men or an indication of her feeling lost with nowhere, really, to go. She is often found staring at her own reflection as if she does not believe the skin she is in. This feeling lost is evident when she picks up a man with neurofibromatosis. He is facially disfigured yet Johansson displays a level of connection previously unseen with her other conquests. 

The soundtrack is bizarre. Not the usual strings and keys of conventional film score, experimental music artist Mica Levi’s, known by her stage name Micachu, remit was to produce music that reflects Johansson’s reaction to events in real time and not to pre-empt or reflect on anything other than the moment. Hence the sometimes difficult, otherworldly sounds produced by perverting recognised tuning on a viola. “It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.” she said in her interview with The Guardian.

The black background becomes a visual motif. It is ambiguous what exactly she does but the tension and danger of it is not.

It is this affectation with the mundane and unremarkable alongside the philosophical and science fictional leanings of the film that grant it its jarring character. Often filled with scenes of Johansson simply staring out at the hustle and bustle of contemporary Scottish life from the vantage point of her van. She is looking through a threshold, the window, and is therefore alien to the world around her. One reviewer was positive of this direction comparing Glazer’s work to the imagery of the late, great Stanley Kubrick. The arresting dream like sequences, the minimalist black background and two note haunting soundtrack that punctuates the almost-sex scenes between Johansson and the people she has picked up. It is a longing for connection that sets up the final act of the film, given such energy by the sonic quality of the Scottish accent and the mundanity of how it happens, that achieves profundity of an almost paradoxical quality.

Leaving the cinema, you are sure to hear chatter from those around you concerning the last 107 minutes: either Under The Skin is a masterpiece or a terrible film. There is an ambition here, attempting to grapple with the human condition, about connection and isolation in a world that can be provide both inescapable interaction and crippling loneliness, but it is skirting the point of imperceptibility. There are too many landscape shots interspersed with the action. Instead of footnoting the scale of the surroundings, they break up what little discernible flow the film has and detach from proceedings. Coupled with the removal of narrative cohesion, any form of exposition and, in large sections of the film, dialogue, this culminates in a sensory experience that is sometimes powerful but without the accessible means to sustain their effects.

“You’ve Been Framed”

Is there something to be said about the ambition of directors seeking to create art through the visual medium that is not just a popcorn-guzzling, big budget blockbuster? I have not come out of a cinema feeling this confused and underwhelmed, surrounded by dichotomous reactions for those around me, since Terence Malick’s 2011 Palme d’Or winning experimental drama The Tree of Life. This is the only film I have ever wanted to walk out of. But I did not. Malick’s vision, however, was clearer and more robust under scrutiny than Glazer’s leaving me with the sensation of acceptance, albeit begrudgingly.

At the Venice Film Festival, critics would either boo, applaud, or meet the closing credits of Under The Skin with an exhalation that reveals a collective breath being held. Or relief that the film had ended. I did sigh at the end of this film. I felt like it had gone on too long, the final image was drawn out to the point of directorial masturbation and I was grasping at threads when trying to ascribe meaning to it. I do not think it is a bad film; it has at least inspired a discourse of interpretation rather than a torrent of maligned pejoration.

But I am not in love with Under The Skin and I would not go as far as to say that I liked it. It is an interesting film. Scarlett Johansson is compelling viewing, erotic, enigmatic and pitiable with very little script and subtle physical acting. But it is too much style over substance. I have no wish to see it again any time soon but, maybe one day, when browsing the shelves at FOPP, I will pick this film up and see if I can get anymore/anything out of it than I have now.

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