Seven years since his second feature Birth, British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer manages to deliver Under the Skin from the darkness that is the British film industry, avoiding the quagmire that has resulted in the end for many young directors, a demise which resembles the fate of the men Scarlett Johannson seduces in his film. Glazer worked on the film for a total of nine years, altering its shape with numerous screenwriters who attached and detached themselves from the project over the years. While the first draft of the film is said to resemble the original novel by Michel Faber, the final version written by Glazer and Walter Campbell reduces his story to its most minimal elements, eschewing much of the narrative and many of the characters of Faber’s book. The film seems to me an improvement on both Birth and his memorable debut Sexy Beast starring Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone. With the film’s opening and first surreal sequence in mind, I was immediately reminded of the work of David Lynch, however, this is not to say that Glazer is impersonating Lynch, in fact, I would argue that one can sense the inception of a style native to Glazer, one which appears unique while simultaneously invoking its influences. It is easy to see that Glazer’s style is not fully-formed. However, the absence of authorial style should not detract from the quality of Under the Skin, a film which stands as a minor achievement of the British cinema.
The film stars Scarlett Johannson as an itinerant alien who seduces unthinking men she encounters on the streets of Glasgow. Her favourite method is to pull up next to an unaccompanied traveller in her Transit van, ask for directions, wait the few seconds for the man to be encapsulated by her beauty and accordingly offer him a lift. With the promise of sex, the foolish victims follow her into her house which functions less as shelter and more as a web: a black sticky realm in which her prey are deposited, suspended and subsequently subject to the cubist distortions reminiscent of early Picasso. While we are never told why Johansson murders men, Glazer offers faint clues which suggest that she is attempting to learn about humanity – from her struggle to eat chocolate cake and discovery of musical rhythm and male ejaculate – perhaps, in that recurrent science fiction cliché, to report back to alien homeland. Thankfully, Glazer refrains from making this connection obvious and indeed the success of the film is reliant on its use of ambiguity: we do not know who this alien is, why she is doing what she is doing and if she is in fact a she. The pleasures of the film are within its combination of image and sound design, its moments of both surrealism and minimalism. Here we have a science fiction film that resists high-concept plots, explanations and elements characteristic of the genre, instead tackling its material with a minimalist aesthetic which somewhat recalls the work of American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
Glazer has spoken of his shooting method which resembles that of hidden camera shows such as Candid Camera: the film’s victims are non-actors that chatted and flirted with Johannson after she approached them from her van asking for directions. These scenes were secretly filmed by Glazer via the numerous cameras he had hidden in the vehicle. The success of the performances, if you can call them such, is therefore indebted to their relationship with reality: we are invited to observe the behaviour of men, some of which are excited by Johannson’s flirtations, some cautionary. They never, however, realise that it is Johannson beneath her brown wig and southern English accent, an element as alien to Glasgow as her character. The documentary realism achieved in these scenes rests on Johannson’s remarkable ability to play both an alien and an alien pretending to be human. The non-actors truly believe that Johnannson is merely a disorientated English girl rather than a famous Hollywood actress in a hidden camera film.
While many scenes of the film make use of hidden camera techniques to acquire both a realist aesthetic and authentic performances, Glazer sets up a binary which contrasts these sequences with those of fantasy. The demise of Johannson’s prey are shot with a combination of expressionism and surrealism and scored by the shrieking violins and pulsating reverberations written by British composer Mica Levi. This combination of nightmare imagery and unnerving modern composition is profoundly hypnotic and characterises some of the films most memorable and captivating moments. Other moments which attract attention of those where Glazer allows us to observe Johannson observing the people of Glasgow, a world which seems as alien to the viewer as it does to the film’s protagonist, and the steadicam tracks into her lair which signal death for the male characters – camera movements pulled from Birth which again suggests the emergence of an authorial style. Glazer’s photography is characterised by its interest in opacity, from the fantastic bright light of the opening sequence, the darkness of the void which traps her victims to the fog on the Scottish highlands which imprisons Johannson after her transition from hunter to the hunted. In the film’s final moments, Johannson reveals what is hidden under the skin to both the audience and her persecutor, a moment of startling surreal beauty which is as seductive as it is unexpected.One could suggest that the film is best described by these two adjectives, however, I would like to add two more: it is both quiet and explosive, juxtaposing moments of silence with the horror of its stylised nightmare sequences. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin should be viewed as a minor achievement of both the science fiction genre and of the British cinema.