Review: UNDER THE SKIN Burns Brilliantly, Bafflingly, Bleakly

A long shot of a man waiting for a bus on a cool, foggy morning. The road winds through a valley where the stop and bench are at the bottom, and snakes up the other side. A woman walks into the frame, one whom we will be following as curious, but baffled onlookers for the duration of the film. The shot lingers, giving time for our eyes to wander around the frame as the camera is not focused on any one thing.  

We know the bus is coming and are drawn, but not forced, to keep looking in the top-right corner of the screen. The two people keep their distance. The bus arrives. We are told nothing, merely shown. The scene evokes Haneke and Antonioni, but feels original in how it drops relatively anonymous people into the landscape. This is one of many sequences of visual ambition and tone in Under The Skin, the most excitingly odd film to arrive this year. It's about sex and death and all the strangeness of life on earth in between the moment of conception and final expiry.  

Opening in a vaguely Kubrickian overture, from a single pinprick of light to what appears to be the assembly of a human eye, it is a lengthy indication that the film is about observation. Not for the faint of cinematic heart, Jonathan Glazer's wildly experimental and uncompromisingly strange new film marks his return to directing after a nine-year absence. A decade is too long to wait after the magnificence of 2004's Birth, but the result confirms the wait was indeed worth it.  

Adapting Michael Faber's quite unconventional novel in a decidedly unconventional way, Glazer and his co-writer Walter Campbell jettison more than half of the source material -- the half that contains explanation as to what is actually going on -- to focus on the female predator at the centre of the story and her discovery of morality? purpose? the good and the bad of humanity? Almost ritualistically, she picks up stray, unattached men in the city, talks to them to establish they have no family or friends, then lures them into a dark cottage where clothes are peeled off item by item, dropping like leaves from a tree, onto the glassy darkness of the floor. The men are pulled into the room by the purity of sexual instinct, trance-like, and then...disposed of.  

Played by Scarlett Johansson in acid-washed jeans, a tart-ish fur coat and an unkempt black mop of hair, the woman is not human -- one scene has her peeling the clothes from her own corpse before carrying on the work of her 'predecessor' -- but it is unclear exactly what she is, or for that matter what her purpose is. The film offers the opportunity to watch her, as she blankly observes the unwashed masses of Northern Scotland doing people things.

The photography of these crowd scenes are so naturalistic that is is not surprising to learn that they were filmed on the sly, real people going about their real lives. She drives around in her white van, an alien hooker looking for johns. The camera keeps on her face, always a bit shadowed in darkness. In fact, her face (and equally naked body) is on screen for over half the screen time. It's not erotic, rather unsettlingly queer. It lingers. It is unshakable. Her performance should destroy any silly doubts or gripes that this woman can act. This is a monster performance nearly absent of dialogue. Johansson is a force of nature. She haunts. She is a venus fly trap and so is the film.  

When not lingering on the opacity of Johansson's face, the documentary-like camera observes the nightlife of Glasgow, isolated urbanity nestled in the chill Scottish moorlands where testosterone loaded foot-y fans and lonely souls wander. She spends more time than usual, seeming to go outside of her gathering role, with the man at the bus stop who shows her kindness, and actual sex.  

The latter she finds baffling, the former, it is less clear, we suspect she understands it in some fashion. The deformed man doesn't get her pity, but also receives intimacy of a more tender kind -- even as it is suggested that the woman only knows the seduction-execution role, there is something that suggests she understands loneliness, and it is that instinct, rather than pity, that motivates her actions with this man.

Birth ends with an existential crisis on a beach possibly resolved (maybe only aggravated) by companionship. Under The Skin also has a scene, an early one in the film, by the sea, in order -- a drowning; a murder; an abandoned, screeching child; rough undertow; more fog. It doesn't play out like any usual film action or horror scene, it is just implacable nature and struggle. A few souls can attempt to help each other out against the current, perhaps, but there is also futility. That is pretty fucking bleak, but there you go.  

The disposal room is glassy, gelatinous and lacking in wind or current. It is bleaker. Despite the repetition, it is hard to look away from the strange images Glazer offers up. I can connect these images to the novel, but I suspect that this version is its own beast in the same way that Tarkovsky and Soderbergh's adaptations of Solaris are their own entities apart from Stanislaw Lem's novel. It feels like either of those films, and, of course, the other big, esoteric science fiction masterpiece 2001:  A Space Odyssey, are as close to touchstones as a work as original as Under The Skin can get. It is simultaneously more human than those movies, but decisively more alien as well: Our existence on this lonely planet as science fiction.

As you can see this is not exactly a review, but more of a reflection of some of the things on display. More viewings, more thoughts are required, but suffice it to say I came out of the film unsettled and intrigued with the ever elastic possibilities of cinema. I suspect that the film will have some more detailed theories and critical thought as time goes on. It is aesthetically significant and effective cinema, but it works better as a movie you feel than one you analyze. I came out of the screening dazed.  

Under The Skin left me still on that foggy winding road, waiting for the bus, perhaps to contemplate what it is like to wait for the bus, perhaps to merely have faith that we know something is coming. One of the very few lines of dialogue in the film come from a trucker, hiking in the woods to the woman: "Watch your step. It's plenty slippery around here and you might get lost." Good advice, that.


Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 4, and then expands to select cities in the U.S. on Friday, April 11. Visit the official site for more information. 
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