Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) and filmed entirely on location across Scotland Under the Skin is a film flaunting incredible cinematography strung together by a predominantly performance-orientated narrative. Based on the Novel by Michael Faber, Under the Skin follows Laura (Scarlett Johansson), an alien from another world, as she travels across Scotland kidnapping young men.
Glazer’s latest is a sci-fi film akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey in that one of the film’s main components is its striking tone and total control over the presented image. Daniel Landin’s exquisite palette of subdued tones creates a grim atmospheric back-drop for the film’s often macabre visual style. The same gorgeous control over image translates the Scottish landscape into a strange muggy alien territory, foreboding and stirring in equal measure. Hundreds of directors have only seen fit to make such land a charming tourist spot, whilst Glazer has here crafted an environment that is as much a character as Laura herself.
Under the Skin is a road movie of sorts, shot in a near-documentary style of lingering shots and snappy disjointed editing, which again expand on the notions of “alien” culture. We are presented time and time again with bizarre social situations; the crowds of Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, Neds rampant in the night, masses of colour-coordinated football fans, all of them overpowering and vast, a sensory overload. But even these shots can tire on the viewer in a film with little dialogue and even less narrative explanation. As a companion to the novel, the film is possibly at its best, but still entirely able as a stand-alone project. For true intrigue: Glazer executes some of the most haunting, striking, and unsettling images of extra-terrestrial life ever put to film.
Glazer keeps the mystery of his alien culture tightly wrapped and that pays off big time, rewarding the audience with a kind of abstract macabre that strays into the realm of the horrific. The aesthetic of this alien technology is the definition of minimalism ensuring nothing can be deduced until the last moment, and though the use of contrast lighting is indeed perfect thinking , it at times crowds scenes with far too much shadow, erasing any finer details. In the same setting Mica Levi’s jarring and genius screech-synth scoring is at its best in Laura’s black widow sequences where it plays out like some bizarre striptease music done in pulse-like percussion. The young Londoner is proving a major talent in sound engineering and someone to keep your eye on.
Apart from the stunning cinematography, the most enrapturing thing about this film is Johansson’s turn as alien provocateur-cum-abductor. Relying less on her lines – which she drones in an awful regional accent – the starlet exhibits an accomplished and often intimidating portrayal of the alien amongst us. This is Johansson’s best performance to date. Johansson, as per, is stunning, and her beauty plays an important part in the alien’s role both during the alien’s predatory ventures, and in the film’s powerful lingering and poignant climax.
Incredibly beautiful piece of sci-fi horror with a stellar performance from Johansson and a soundtrack to compliment, Under the Skin is not the gripping sort of hunter/hunted thriller some may expect. If you can look past its relatively reserved lack of narrative you’ll find a powerful and considerate meander through the life of an alien in an alien land.
9,10&15th September 2013 (TIFF) 13, 14th October (LIFF)
Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Jessica Mance