If we’re being glib, Jonathan Glazer’s return to feature film (after Sexy Beast and Birth) largely consists of ‘Scarlett Johansson in a van’. Oh, and she’s an alien. And she’s driving round Glasgow.
Glazer strips back dialogue, narrative and exposition to its bare essentials (adapting with Walter Campbell from Michel Faber’s debut novel). Little is made explicit, much is inferred, and that is one of its key strengths. Getting bogged down in the hows and whys would ultimately dilute a film that is something to be experienced, not explained. These voids are filled with such startling imagery, bolstered by a dark, hypnotic score by Mica Levi (of Michachu and the Shapes) and drenched in a rich, tense atmosphere, anything explicitly explained would detract from the experience, and an excellent one at that.
From its arresting opening filled with strange shapes, playing with macro and micro scale – with what appear to be celestial bodies revealed to be parts of a human body in extreme close up – and in near-monochrome, almost like shadow puppets, Glazer’s visual sense, honed by years of commercials and music videos, comes to the fore. This contrasts with the urban reality in which Johansson’s character navigates the city streets (much filmed with hidden cameras), enticing unwitting and unattached men into her vehicle, returning them to her home and, well, once their fate is revealed, the true horror is terrifying, twisted, and beautifully disturbing. Sure, it brings to mind the schlock of Species, or maybe that Outer Limits episode when the lady does a sex and absorbs the men inside her. But in fact, Under the Skin reminded me most of the original Hellraiser – though steeped not in gothic gore, but minimal otherworldly surrealism. Once the film breaks out into the wider landscape, the Scottish wilds look just as incredible, and reality and the ethereal unify, the alien rendered mundane, the mundane alien.
Given that the focus is entirely on Johansson and from her perspective (Glazer remarks how it was the aspect of viewing the world though an alien lens that put him on to the project), there is much subtle complexity behind the blank canvas. Unaware of social prejudices and seemingly incapable of discrimination, she can appear disarmingly open and unjudgemental, but it also means she can be dispassionate and dangerously cold. Her appearance is also played up and played upon, a comment on sexual objectification (one of many themes that can be unpacked from the film), toying with the audience as voyeurs as much as it does those who fall under her spell.
Under the Skin is not going to please everyone, and is sure to infuriate many, but it is a hard film to shake off. I hope it stays rattling around my mind a little while longer. And I’ve no doubt it will.