Under The Skin

UK | 2013 | Directed by Jonathan Grazer

Logline: An alien on earth in human form seduces various men before she becomes curious about the human condition and all its foibles.

It’s taken Jonathan Glazer, who made the excellent Sexy Beast (2000), ten years to make an adaptation from Dutch novelist Michel Faber. The screenplay, co-written with Walter Campbell, is loosely inspired by elements of Faber’s story; an extraterrestrial siren (Scarlett Johansson) has visited earth and taken human form and spends her time going from one sexual encounter to the next, whilst another of her kind runs around after her cleaning up. The alien is frequently distracted by the contrasting beauty and desolation of the landscape and its inhabitants. It begins to overwhelm her.

Infused with the kind of ponderous melancholy, the spare, cold imagery, and the existential wilderness of Andrei Tarvosky, Stanley Kubrick, and Nicolas Roeg combined, Glazer’s deliberately artful take on fractured desire, entrenched loneliness, and gradual empathy is the year’s most affecting movie. There is a cumulative emotional effect happening that reaches a startling and strangely satisfying denouement.

Under the Skin is precisely that. It’s a play on words; the obvious reason being the alien in disguise, but the deeper meaning is what follows a crucial, and for parents rather harrowing, scene set on a rugged beach. Later the alien protagonist (none of the movie’s characters are given names) finds herself waiting in traffic, a baby’s cry reverberating in her mind, and subsequently she abandons her vehicle, immerses herself in a tranquil white mist, and becomes lost, a quiet drifting desperation gnawing away inside her, as she grapples with the human impulse.

Glazer peppers his languid, meandering narrative with some stunning imagery (his background has been directing music clips and commercials), the most extraordinary being a sequence depicting one of the alien’s conquests nightmarish experience deep within a carnal void. Another burnt onto my retina is the POV of a motorcyclist hurtling along a narrow country road at night. Under the Skin is as much a study of the Scotland highland landscape as it is of Scarlett Johansson’s visage, and body, and it fixes itself firmly into the best of her career.

There are many questions raised and never explained, but as David Lynch once inferred, we don’t understand everything we see in life, so why should we understand everything we see in cinema? It’s apparent David Lynch is another tone, mood, and visual influence on Under the Skin. There is frustration, especially during the movie’s first half, as slow-burn repetition threatens to tear the movie’s conceptual fabric, but as I suspected, this is a movie that lingers significantly, long after the snow has fallen.

Very much an acquired taste, just like much of the perplexing and provocative science-fiction cinema of the 70s ............ There is nihilistic darkness at the edge of the lush dream that hovers, entrances, and threatens to engulf.

Under the Skin screens as part of 17th Revelation - Perth International Film Festival, Opening Night, Thur 3rd July, 7pm, Luna Cinema, Sun 6th, 6:15pm, SX Cinema, and Wed 9th, 6:30pm, Paradiso Cinema