It’s become something of a misnomer to say that a film won’t appeal to everyone. Film by its nature is subjective, and the notion that a piece of art could universally please everyone’s taste is an absurd one. Yet some films will divide opinion more than others. Under The Skin is a film which you can’t not feel strongly about.
Scarlett Johansson is an alien, Laura, recently arrived on Earth, who preys on eager men for reasons which are never made explicitly clear. She drives around the streets of Glasgow (talk about throwing yourself in at the deep end) absorbing the new world around her as she gradually discovers human nature. Her encounters with her would-be victims, in the front seat of her white van, feature some of the film’s only dialogue, and are made all the more striking when you consider that none of the men were actors, and weren’t aware they were being secretly filmed, with director Jonathan Glazer hidden in the back of the van.
This sort of detail adds further mystery to an enigmatic director. Since his debut fourteen years ago with Sexy Beast, Glazer has only made one other film (the underrated Birth). The scarcity of his cinematic output adds weight to those who have compared him to Stanley Kubrick – a comparison which I wouldn’t disagree with, as Glazer shares the same potent mix of experimentalism and perfectionism. From a shopping mall, to the wild Scottish landscape, Glazer frames each shot with an arresting visual flare. We view the world as our extra-terrestrial protagonist does: every aspect of mundane human life seems shockingly alien. Johansson’s wide-eyed curiosity at her new surrounding disguise her deadly intentions, yet she is still capable of tenderness. In one scene, she picks up a hooded man who reveals himself to be horrifically disfigured. She tells him he has soft hands and encourages him to touch her – a rare display of intimacy which is as foreign to the man as it is to her.
The naturalism of these exchanges in her van are jarred with mind-bending sequences in which her victims enter her decrepit house, with the promise of sex, before being engulfed by a black goo which sheds them of their skin. These scenes aren’t gory but are genuinely horrifying, and inject a sense of menace which runs throughout the film.
The abstract nature of the skin-farming scenes, coupled with the sparse dialogue will certainly fuel those who argue the film is pretentious and lacks emotion. On the contrary, Under The Skin is a study of the human condition, beautifully shot and superbly handled by Glazer and Johansson. The latter’s presence making this a masterpiece you might actually see.