Jonathan Glazer’s terrific sci-fi is an abstract study of human loneliness starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien who lands in Glasgow.
Yesterday’s screening of Under the Skin was followed by a Q&A with Jonathan Glazer who then took off his skin and revealed himself to be the director of Birth. Glazer’s bleak sci-fi is his third feature, following 2000’s critical smash Sexy Beast and 2004’s divisive Birth. I am a fan of neither, but Glazer pulls me in with Under the Skin: a visual kick to the head, complete with an ambient score shoved aside by shrieking strings.
There’s much to admire in Birth, although I found its creepy tension unwound by an unnecessary lack of ambiguity. Conversely, Under the Skin is delightfully baffling during its mostly dialogue-free 107 minutes. The narrative follows an alien that inhabits the body of a young woman (Scarlett Johansson), while displaying the cold physical behaviour of an extra-terrestrial inside an ill-fitting costume.
The star casting of Johansson turns out to be an ingenious move; her recognisability adds an extra surreal touch, with her awkward movements so out of place in Glasglow’s public areas. She visits shopping centres and drives around the city to flirting with strangers – supposedly filmed by Glazer with hidden cameras. Many of these men are under the age of 30 and hold an indecipherable accent, while unable to recognise the actress (it’s either the black wig, or We Bought a Zoo really is that forgettable).
Once invited back to Johansson’s newly acquainted home, a surreal mating ritual occurs where undressing occurs in an imagined darkness, before the erect male sinks through a watery black hole. It’s odder than the Sexy Beast cutaways, that’s for sure. These sequences are also highly hypnotic, with repetition underlining the unknowing weakness of the libido-driven men – strangers who at a moment’s notice hitchhike with an attractive stranger because she flatly states, “I like your smile.”
A deeper satirical point exists with Glasgow’s various subcultures which confuse the alien. From her POV, everyday sights of modern life become absurd: drunk women marching to a club in heels, and men brandishing their football shirts. It is, indeed, an “alien” experience.
Although Under the Skin is based on a novel (written by Michel Faber), it breathes like an abstract poem brought to life. The original book had a storyline where Johansson’s character transports humans to her home planet for an interplanetary Nando’s chain. Little of that is apparent or made clear in the film, leaving much to the viewer’s interpretation. That element instils extra mystery into the more subdued scenes set in Scotland’s more barren locations made even chillier than before.
Johansson stares with wonder at shopping centres, into ordinary houses, or at her own flesh; her curiosity reflects the viewer’s experience. The alien metaphor is a tad overstretched, but there’s much to admire in Glazer’s idiosyncratic take on the loneliness and self-destructive urges of human nature. Johansson’s character may not adapt to her human surroundings (unable to even swallow a piece of chocolate cake) and at times is unable to walk correctly – but the essence of human loneliness is one lesson she’s quick to learn.
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