Under the Skin

Ashley Clark

Arriving nine long years after his last film Birth, Jonathan Glazer’s oblique and deeply atmospheric Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien sent to Earth—the Scottish highlands, to be precise—in order to carry out a mysterious mission; a mission which suggests the hapless local males should watch their backs. Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Michel Faber, and sure to divide audiences, it filters a number of familiar sci-fi tropes through a rigorously austere, if icily beautiful, aesthetic sensibility, and features a stripped-back, skeletal narrative. I haven’t read Faber’s book, but an online synopsis suggests that it goes into much greater detail about the nuts and bolts of the background to the alien's mission than the film does. 

With little in the way of conventional plot, Under the Skin is best described as a mood piece. With its slow pace, deliberate repetition and only the most minutely incremental changes in tone and characterisation, it is structured to reflect the alien's inscrutability and the simplicity of her mission. Some emotion creeps into the narrative as she struggles to cope with new feelings, but such developments are observed at a rigorous remove by the director. This may all sound terribly forbidding, but the film is not without a sense of mordant humour. A recurring set-piece—an enigmatic, sumptuously shot sexual dance of death set to lascivious orchestral music—is simultaneously horrifically Lynchian (with an unmistakable dash of the visual verve Glazer used to bring to his music promo videos and commercials) and absurdly funny.

Johansson is perfectly cast; with her porcelain face, impassive gaze framed by a shock of black hair, and layers of outsider signifiers (an American actress playing an alien with an impeccable, cut-glass English accent in Scotland!), she resounds as a genuine ‘Other’. A further triumph of casting is to pit her against a host of unknown Scottish everymen, whose very ordinariness further accentuates Johansson’s alien qualities, and whose borderline-impenetrable accents afford the film a further comic frisson. The alien’s predatory modus operandi (sleazily riding up to her prey in a minivan) is a clever subversion of gender norms, and not since Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day have men been made to look so utterly hapless.

Over and above everything else, Under the Skin is simply an astonishing audio-visual experience. The eerie mood is burnished by Johnnie Burn’s unsettling sound design and a score by Mica Levi which makes rich use of atonal, The Shining-esque strings. Glazer makes fine use of the contrast between Glasgow’s urban metropolis and the stunning rural landscapes of the Scottish highlands, while interiors (of cars, dingy houses) evoke the work of Francis Bacon, with bruised tableaus of deep blacks and sulphuric yellows. Appropriately, given the enveloping darkness of its tone, half of Under the Skin seems to be set in the void.

Historically, however, Under the Skin doesn’t exist in a void. Rather, it is plugged into a lineage of oddball British cinema. The influence of Nicolas Roeg, for one, looms particularly large. Its plot basics are incredibly similar to Roeg’s 1976 film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, although it is far less narratively cluttered. The alien’s black bob, plump rouge lips and fur coat are redolent of Mick Jagger’s identity-juggling Turner in the lysergic Performance (1970), and there’s even an amusing, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to the red-coated figure of Don’t Look Now (1973), except wintry Venice is substituted for a rain-slicked prefab Glaswegian estate. Other key reference points seem to be Chris Petit’s stark 1979 road movie Radio On, and, perhaps a little more fancifully, Bill Forsyth’s oddly haunting Local Hero (1983), in which a small village in the Scottish Highlands is disrupted by the arrival of an outsider with big plans.

Ultimately, though, Under the Skin boasts its own hauntingly distinct sensibility, and is possessed of a melancholic mood that’s never undone. Just as ineffably and mysteriously as it arrives, Under the Skin is gone, leaving the distinct impression that Glazer is one of the most interesting, individual directors working in Britain today. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another nine years for his next film.

Follow Ashley on Twitter: @_Ash_Clark 

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