Does a ﬁlm need a story? Or a character arc? Does a ﬁlm even have to entertain?
Jonathan Glazer, the director of Under the Skin, is certainly making the case that it doesn’t.His latest is pure art.
It’ll have no truck with entertainment; it has more serious concerns: the nature of humanity, the dichotomy between the exterior and the interior, and other wordy and weighty matters. Based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, Glazer’s ﬁlm is less an adaptation and more a sister piece to the novel. We follow Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien as she stalks the streets of Glasgow, sashaying through shopping centres, backstreets and clubs to snare dull-witted men. Which makes the ﬁlm sound like Species — and I suppose it is — only without the sex, or any immediately apparent (or even belatedly apparent) motivations. Johansson’s interstellar foreigner eventually follows the same emotional journey as her literary counterpart: she’s an alien, she has a job to do, she comes to question that job — albeit in abstract fashion — and runs from it when she begins to experience a sort-of humanity.
Little to none of the above is ever stated or made clear, it’s just… Inferred. If you know the source material then said inferring might actually be possible. If you don’t, then best of luck, because Under the Skin isn’t interested in being explicable. It’s about mood, suggestion and perception. It’s a chilling ﬁlm, with imagery that’s striking and warped. It manages to be both singularly beautiful and blandly common within the space of a few frames; there’s nothing like hearing people talk about Tesco’s and Asda to pull you out of a ﬁlm. It is by turns imperfect, amateurish and fascinating.
In some quarters the ﬁlm has been described as erotic, which is inaccurate. It’s primal. As Johansson strips off, enticing her prey further into her lair (and keeping them from noticing it’s decrepit inhuman aspect), there’s an insistent beat to the soundtrack, suggestive of the men’s mental faculties being overridden by their desire. All they see is their need. Glazer wants us to see ourselves through an aliens eyes: we’re petty, driven by hunger, sex and tribalism. Which sounds like an interesting ﬁlm, but for it to work we’d need to get behind that alien perspective. Johansson has never been the most electrifying screen presence, and is usually at her best playing things of beauty that are hollow inside, as she did in Ghost World and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Here she’s used to similar effect, with the one (rather critical) difference being she has to carry the ﬁlm; a struggle for her at the best of times, but near impossible when Glazer limits her range of expressions to ‘blank-face’: whilst out hunting, ‘slightly-animated-face’: when her prey are with her, and ‘confused face’: which she tries on during the closing act. These constraints are about accentuating the alien-ness of it all. It works, but it doesn’t give us a reason to care for Johansson’s kind-of-serial-killer or for us to begin self- analysing and wondering at how we’re all just rutting animals.
Under the Skin is, as a piece of art, intriguing; but as a piece of cinema it’s ultimately lacking.
Under the Skin review and illustration by Tom Charles
See and read more of Tom’s work at sketchy-reviews.blogspot.co.uk