I was intrigued by this film: the Times reviewer gave it 5 stars; the Sunday Times reviewer gave it 1 star. Such diversity of view has to be investigated!
Let’s get one thing straight before we start; Under the Skin is very much an ‘art house’ film, so don’t go and see it if you are looking for a nice, linear ‘popcorn’ movie. It starts very much in ‘2001’ style (or, actually, Close Encounters style) and the poster commentaries about director Jonathan Glazer (‘Sexy Beast’) being ‘the new Kubrick’ are not misplaced. The start is decidedly abstract, as is much of the rest of the film.
Under the Skin tells the strange story of an alien being who – for reasons barely explained – disguises him/her/itself as an attractive woman (Scarlett Johansson) who picks up single men in and around Glasgow. These men will not be readily ‘missed’, and she uses her sexuality to lure them to a – literally – sticky end.
She is aided and abetted in this goal by another alien in the form of a menacing biker, who ‘cleans up’ evidence after her activities. Her mission really depends on her being inhuman in every sense of the word, and the film shows the journey of Johansson as she starts, almost imperceptibly, to appreciate the comings and goings of the ant-like Glaswegians that she is preying on. Ultimately this desire to understand more and get ‘closer’ is her undoing: hunter becomes prey, with members of both species out to get her.
Scarlett Johansson is excellent as the emotionless alien, treating events like a yob attack with curious puzzlement rather than fear or anger. I’d like to say I can hardly see enough of Johansson: but actually there is substantial (and brave) nudity in this film, and she is a ‘real’ woman in every sense of the word. This really is a starring role, since most of the other characters in the film make very fleeting appearances, with – just to even the balance – significant male nudity involved as well.
Whilst the story is relatively slight, the film is executed with significant style, with some atmospheric landscapes and a roving camera around the streets of Glasgow observing (presumably) everyday Glaswegians at work and play. One marvellous scene shows Johansson’s face as a transparent layer observing a mosaic of street scenes that build up on the screen: it is so impressive it makes me want to dive for Final Cut X and try to replicate it.
A shout out should also go to the stunt team, for one particularly dangerous-looking (and very harrowing) scene on a deserted beach. If there is one scene that is likely to stick with you long after the film has finished it is the final shot of that beach and the troubled soul upon it.
Music by newcomer Mika Levi is strangely alien as befits the film, full of atonal sounds and (again) being reminiscent of Ligeti’s equally strange music in 2011: A Space Odyssey.
You might guess already from my comments that I’m not going to give this 1 star. But I’m also not going to give it 5 stars either. My criticisms fall into a couple of areas. Firstly, setting the film in Glasgow is very atmospheric, but some of the dialogue is (I’m sorry) pretty incomprehensible: and my English ear is better tuned than the American or rest of the world market will find it! (One can only hope that a ‘Yes’ vote for independance in September might get films like this classed as ‘Foreign Films’, and subtitles can be provided!) More seriously, the ending of the film irritated me enormously. Woman meets man in lonely woods and immediately becomes the target for a sexual assault. Obviously. “They’re all asking for it”. This is lazy and mysogynist plotting, letting the overall movie down. I guess the director was trying to compare and contrast the hunter/hunted switch through the film, but in my humble opinion the film could have reached its denouement in a much more elegant and believable way.
For this reason…
Fad Rating: FFFf.