Familiarize Yourself: UNDER THE SKIN

Under the Skin

 

Widely branded as an experimental (read: plotless and arty) adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, this is admittedly far more out there than SPECIES or even THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, to name two other films that center around an alien encountering Earth. Viewers probably won’t see a more demanding opening at the indieplex all year than this one’s disorientating montage of abstract images and Mica Levi’s eerie, often abrasive score. UNDER THE SKIN immediately seems defiant and uncompromising, but it’s still largely narrative-driven, following a trajectory that registers pretty clearly—at least, once you get your bearings as to what’s going on.

Unnamed and arriving without context or explanation, the alien is a voluptuous woman played by Scarlett Johansson, through whose eyes much of the action unfolds. Casting such a famous, telegenic actress surely allowed the film to get made, but in this case it’s also a stroke of genius—as she drives a large van around Glasgow’s grungy streets, hitting up lonely male souls whom she seduces into taking back to her lair, of course Johansson is the perfect alien. Why else would someone so physically stunning talk up all of these unsuspecting average blokes (and in Scotland, no less?) Coming off a recent career surge including smart turns in DON JON and HER, Johansson has reminded viewers that she’s more than just a pretty face (rather emphatically in the latter film); her subtle performance here confirms it, pulling off the daunting task of appearing as someone encountering her surroundings for the first time and simultaneously, slyly manipulating it to her best advantage.

With few exceptions (most notably a knowingly drawn out moment where Johansson attempts to down a slice of cake), director Jonathan Glazer eschews humor for a far more severe, grim tone. This effectively ramps up the discomfort level to Fucking Terrifying in numerous scenes (both the incident at the beach and the inventive, grotesque procedure of what becomes of Johansson’s conquests will stay with me for the rest of my life), but everything, no matter how unnerving serves the narrative, pushing it forward. By the second half, you may start to notice patterns and deliberate movements: from urban to more isolated settings, from the act of pursuing shifting to that of being pursued, from cultivating a male gaze to being abruptly slammed with a collective female one (the film’s other funniest moment), from perceiving Johansson as revolting and, well, alien to becoming deeply invested in her fate.

Ironically, given its title, the film’s surface is what distinguishes it most from any thematically similar predecessors (only THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH comes close, perhaps). This is Glazer’s first feature since BIRTH from ten years ago, and he’s returned with a heightened, all-out sensory experience, emphasizing sound and vision but not to the point of overload. In both the cinematography and the intricate sound design, beauty collides with repulsiveness, harmonic balance co-exists with cacophony, and sumptuous composed landscapes alternate with entirely abstract canvases. Is it ambitious or merely pretentious? Some viewers will think the former and the film’s artier tendencies sometimes vindicate this argument. But, UNDER THE SKIN is as much an art film as it is a character film, albeit one about a seemingly unknowable character. As Johansson discovers and adapts herself to the strange new world around her, Glazer encourages the viewer to follow the exact same process where the entire film is concerned—in time, the unknowable gradually, effectively becomes relatable.  Grade: A

2 Responses to Familiarize Yourself: UNDER THE SKIN

  1. Whoa. I had no idea this was being made into a movie! I read the book years ago. I’ll have to make a point to see this!

  2. ckriofske says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I saw this with the director in attendance; apparently, it’s very different, the narrative stripped-down considerably to the barest essentials. I’ve noticed people seeing it at the Coolidge tend to either love or hate it.

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