Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Under the Skin (15) | Film Review

Under the Skin, dir. Jonathan Glazer, scr. Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell, based on the novel Under the Skin by Michel Faber, st. Scarlett Johansson

What movie could possibly elicit a reaction whereby boos and cheers ring out together in unholy disharmony? Well try this on for size: in only his third film in fourteen years, Jonathan Glazer directs Scarlett Johansson as a bewigged, fur-coated alien who drives around Scotland in a white van, sporadically picking up single men before leading them, entranced, into an otherworldly, transitive black goo that harvests their soft tissues. To boot, there's barely any dialogue, and a near-constant droning sound-score design hybrid. Johansson's performance has already been labeled by some as 'iconic' and the film as 'a masterpiece' - terms that provoke a high degree of suspicion whenever they are uttered. Yet despite a cautious approach to Glazer's film, those labels once heard that cannot be unheard, Under the Skin is undoubtedly a mesmerisingly quixotic marvel.

There are questions about the plot and meaning (who is the mysterious biker that accompanies Scarl-ET? Is he too not of this world? Why are only men selected? Is she abandoned or on recon?), but such films' unnatural lack of contextualisation forms the bedrock and beauty of their style. Glazer also reminds us of the potential redundancy of dialogue, how once excised from the process, a vacuum forms - all the more space to fill with sound and light. Many images are breathtakingly beautiful and sophisticatedly composed. Some sequences are shocking, not from gore, but from their sheer visceral impact. For me, most memorable was a POV shot from a submerged victim looking up through the brume to see The Alien walk Christ-like across the gunk that had claimed him not a moment before. I'm sure I've had that very same dream, and seeing it recreated onscreen left me utterly terrified.

Yet despite this alleged lack of coherence, where Glazer remains exuberantly unbonded within the shackles of convention and formulae, there is a crystal-clear and rather unexpectedly poignant narrational through-line that's compelling, and more importantly - accessible. The Alien's (she's Isserly in the novel) gradual shift from worker bee, through to the first pricking of what might be called a conscience through her meeting with Lonely (Adam Pearson), a man with neurofibromatosis deformity, and on to her 'awakening' and subsequent off-grid trek, is meticulously chaptered and crafted by a note- (and accent) perfect Johansson, an actor with extraordinary range and skill. Aiding in the majestic sweep of this film is Mica Levi's arresting score and Johnnie Burn's sound design, the two complementing components grinding, swirling, thumping, humming and vibrating together, one seamlessly integrating into the other like some sonic pas de deux. Predictably, there's little here in the way of empathic scoring. In fact we're never explicitly told where to go, what to feel. There are instead, the slightest of illusory nudges, foggy suggestions.

So what does it all mean? What is there to glean when, as Stewart Lee might say, "the Satnav is off"? Well most obviously, as the title suggests, Under the Skin talks a great deal about perception. Of the world around us, of other people, of ourselves. On one level, the film functions as a straightforward Man Who Fell to Earth-style sci-fi. Comparisons to Kubrick quickly follow after anything vaguely abstract apparently, but for my money this is a warmer film than anything Kubrick ever produced. But Under the Skin can also be seen as a paean for isolation and exclusion. How one can look the part but fail to fully integrate into the world around us seems plausible through the eyes of Isserly, but probably occurs frighteningly often amongst us humans as well. This is the familiar world Glazer works so hard to alienate from us. The final trick of course, the flourish that holds everything together, is in the ingenious casting of Johansson, an A-list Hollywooder at the top of her game, surgically severed from Tinseltown, and transplanted to the barrens of urban and rural Glasgow. Under the Skin is startling for many reasons, but perhaps chief among these is the realisation that it's still possible to experience genuine awe and reverence at something you saw at the cinema.