UNDER THE SKIN
Duration 108 mins
Review: Alex Griffin
Jonathan Glazier’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel is a strange and sinister fusion of complexity that establishes from the outset its intention as the director’s uncompromising vision.
The opening sequence itself is a weird and wonderful abstract visual. A piercing light, eclipsed by something that resembles a crescent moon, morphs into the vivid close-up of an eye. An acute and almost uncomfortable high-pitched sound is continuous throughout. It manifests tension; the unsettling feeling that something terrible might be about to happen. This uneasiness stays the course of the film, creating an ever-present sensation of being de-centred.
Those who are unfamiliar with Faber’s work might be left wondering exactly what's going on. Glazier deliberately provides little context or explanation; dialogue is spartan, almost non-existent. By way of the predominately visual narrative we are introduced to Johansson’s emotionless alien huntress, on a pre-programmed mission to lure her unsuspecting prey from the streets of Glasgow towards a bizarre and grisly fate.
Johansson is the film's alluring hook. Decked out like a mysterious siren from film noir she surpasses the requirement of being captivating in an other-worldly sense. The camera lingers on her blood-red lips whilst she sashays around with a vacantly magnetic gaze reminiscent of Sean Young in Blade Runner.
She moves through her assignment with android-like indifference until she begins to form a curiosity for human existence and so the seed is sown that will propel her toward the embodiment of mortal fragility and ultimately to an inevitable demise.
Like those in a similar vein before, this movie explores what it means to be human or, more poignantly, what it means to be alive. It mirrors its predecessors in its use of the other; the thing which is apart; the outsider who observes consciously the subconscious motivation within human interaction. Subsequently, elements of beauty, exploitation, power, loneliness and empathy all rear their heads respectively.
Glazier uses the cinematic medium to convey themes from the novel through a myriad of sinister images and creepy sonic bursts. Johansson’s victims disappear in an oozing black liquid abyss whilst she calmly reels them in, to an eerie Portishead-esque synth. Shades of Kubrick are ever prevalent: the conveyor-belt of blood evokes the infamous The Shining corridor. The uncanny repetitive musical phrase provided by Mica Levi is reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut.
What it all means is not entirely clear. There is ambiguity. How significant is gender? There is no sense of pity for the majority of the male victims; they are presented as predatory despite the reality of the female hunter. Later, we feel compassion for her when she is attacked. There’s a strong argument that its all a critique on power: who is perceived to be controlling versus who is actually in control. There is no doubt that Johansson holds virtually no autonomy. This is affirmed in the menacing intermittent appearances of her superior agent.
Glazier deserves recognition for his tenacity to hold true to his own vision. This is his realisation of a story and you have to admire him for going out on a limb with it. One must also give him credit for his experimental approach (many of the encounters were shot in real time with real people through hidden lenses). There are elements that don’t work for me; a few overly long shots where not a lot happens, for example. The juxtaposition of the real and sublime doesn’t quite mix well enough either.
Perhaps the Glasgow backdrop is just too much at odds with the abstract visual interludes, it never really feels like it quite fuses. There are some films that can be appreciated on a predominantly aesthetic level but I’m not sure this slots easily into that category. It does feel stand-alone, existing out there, of its own style and substance.
Johansson gives a stellar performance reminiscent of David Bowie’s ill-fated star man in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 The Man Who Fell to Earth. Similarly, she exudes the deep-rooted sensation of not belonging, of wanting to escape whilst understanding she is essentially trapped. She moves from coldness to vulnerability with ease whilst incubating a sense of despair that permeates the entire sub-text of the film. It left me feeling empty, but that may well have been its intention. It left me thinking about the world as an often scary and uncertain place. However it stands its ground as a piece of fearless visual art and for that reason alone is worth a viewing.