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The Woman Who Fell to Perth

MOVIE REVIEW
Under the Skin (2013)

Under-the-skin-movie-review-scarlett-johansson
Studiocanal

Excitement about Jonathan Glazer’s third feature has been palpable at the 57th BFI London Film Festival. After a 7-year wait, the film divided crowds in Venice a couple of months ago, and then wasn’t given a press screening at all here in London, leading to a mad scramble for tickets and ever-increasing speculation.

The anticipation for many, based on early descriptions, was that Mr. Glazer had delivered one of those rare head-spinning exercises in genre experimentation, fractured narrative, retina-searing visuals and cochlear-crunching sound design that would go down in history as an all-time esoteric sci-fi classic. You know the type — I’m talking about some of our favorite films here: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Solaris,” “Stalker,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “Altered States” and perhaps more recently, “Enter the Void.”

Well, even sometime after “Under The Skin” has settled in my subconscious, I can’t really be sure if it lives up to such expectations or not. What I can say for sure it that it definitely comes close enough to make it an essential film for fans of out-there cinema.

The plot has been likened to “Species” because of its reliance on the idea of a beautiful alien succubus, tempting bewitched human males to their demise. But the film contains none of the usual sci-fi trappings in this regard. We don’t see our alien emerging from a spaceship or bursting out of some slimy, H. R. Giger-style egg. And the film doesn’t even attempt to present its lead as an otherworldly, hypnotic beauty either. Granted, Scarlett Johansson is always pleasant to look at, but there’s much more emphasis on her everyday appeal than you might expect.

The opening scene is pure cinematic gold for lovers of hypnotic visuals. We’re firmly into Jupiter-and-Beyond-the-Infinite territory from the moment the lights go down. But Mr. Glazer toys with our preconceptions about the film’s supposed sci-fi leanings, suggesting that its abstract imagery might not be so galactic in nature after all. From then on the film never misses an opportunity to mess with our heads, mixing realism with otherworldliness, rarely explaining anything we’re witnessing and strewing ambiguities around with gleeful abandon.

In fact, aside from the opening and closing scenes, there’s little to suggest Laura (as Ms. Johansson’s character is credited) is an even alien at all, which only goes to enhance the film’s allegorical feel. The film goes on to follow Laura chatting naively and semi-seductively to a succession of Glaswegian men as she drives her van around the city. The clear implication of Laura’s intergalactic tourist act is that the film is metaphorically examining the experience of being an alien in terms of its more earthly definition — that of immigrant arrivals in inhospitable new countries.

Laura’s experience is completely analogous to those of any migrant, as she desperately tries to navigate the cultural peculiarity of Scotland by second-guessing the desires of enigmatic males. Like many newcomers, she’s forced by unseen powers to resort to the sex trade, but she plans to her use body as an assimilative tool, absorbing aspects of her conquests in order to assume an understanding of her host country. An amoral encounter causes her to change heart and go AWOL, only for the dark forces to pursue her and attempt to rein her back in.

Judging from descriptions of Michel Faber’s source novel (which I haven’t read), such a reading is likely to have some relevance; but while watching the film I felt that another, seemingly insignificant aspect — namely the film’s Scottish setting — might also be impregnated with double meaning.

The Scottish people are presented with complete unaffected naturalism (a result of non-actors filmed in guerrilla style), but because we’re viewing the film through the eyes of our detached, bewildered observer, they come across as both familiarly normal and inscrutably alien at the same time.

The Glaswegians’ behavior is both realistically idiosyncratic but often also illogically erratic when seen through a detached, alien gaze: a clutch of clubbing girls corral a silent stranger into their gang for the night; a man finds the prospect of going to Tesco more enticing than the offer of free sex.

I’ve got a feeling that (Englishman) Mr. Glazer and compatriot co-screenwriter Walter Campbell are up to something here and are perhaps intentionally trading on the famous English fear of Scottish mysteriousness with their ambivalent depiction. This sense is underlined when we conspicuously overhear a radio broadcast about the upcoming Scottish independence vote. I may be reading too much into it, but I expect British viewers might find the film more interesting than international audiences and would be interested to gauge different reactions, especially those of Scots themselves.

Those expecting the kind of film I outlined at the top of this piece would no doubt be surprised that such an obscure and parochial subtextual reading would be required to unpack this film, and it’s another area in which the film confounds genre conventions.

If the film distances itself from the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky with its disavowal of grand metaphysical themes in favor of more modest ones, its visuals similarly derive from a more distinct and contemporary imaginative space. While there are some incredible sequences that wouldn’t look out of place on a Douglas Trumbull show reel, it’s also interesting how slightly shallow the aesthetics seem. Where Tarkovsky, Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell and the likes were steeped in a classical knowledge of iconography, composition and art history and their imagery reflected this, Mr. Glazer was schooled in a different era and made his name shooting music videos. It may be unfair to draw such distinctions, but something about the film’s combination of clean, precise design and airy ambiguities is redolent of the more experimental music clips. In fact, it’s perhaps the kind of film we once might have expected Mr. Glazer’s long-forgotten pop-promo peer Chris Cunningham to have made.

And of course there’s the music itself, which is quite frankly one of the most astonishing soundtracks of recent memory. The debut film score of electronic musician Mica Levi (better known as Micachu), it can only be described as sounding as if Krzysztof Penderecki had been remixed by Plastikman, and it completely dominates the film’s atmospherics, contaminating the entire film with its creeping menace.

Ultimately it’s the film’s incessantly unnerving air that impresses the most. In a handful of scenes Mr. Glazer creates a strangely dislocated tone of indifferent, inhuman callousness that’s haunting, unsettling and completely his own.

Mr. Glazer claimed he wanted to make the film seem like an alien’s perspective on humanity, and he certainly makes a valiant attempt to realize a vision that’s inconceivable by its very nature. Of the finished film, you could almost go further and say it too seems like an alien has made its own askew attempt to make a human sci-fi movie, and delivered instead this utterly uncategorizable, strangely provincial mixture of mundane realism and unearthly abstraction.

UNDER THE SKIN

Opens on March 14, 2014 in Britain and on April 4, 2014 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Jonathan Glazer; written by Walter Campbell and Mr. Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber; director of photography, Daniel Landin; edited by Paul Watts; music by Mica Levi; art direction by Emer O’Sullivan; production design by Chris Oddy; costumes by Steven Noble; produced by James Wilson and Nick Wechsler; released by Studiocanal (Britain) and A24 (United States). Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell and Kevin McAlinden.

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