Jonathan Glazer’s, Under the Skin, is finally available through Video on Demand (VOD), and for those of us who live someplace where it doesn’t play at our local cinema, this is the perfect opportunity to watch a full fledged masterpiece in the same category as Stanley Kubrick and other masters of cinema.
The opening sequence of Under the Skin is perhaps the most atmospheric sequence in any movie since the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where 2001 gives us a oozy dolly-zoom from one edge of the universe to the other, Under the Skin shows us the creation. Not in biblical or evolutionary terms, but in Glazer’s own definition of the word. An organic form is created, and this is Scarlett Johansson, an alien sent to earth to seduce men. We pan in and out on small objects, white on black, as we hear Scarlett Johanssons voice echo the sound of letters – as her character tries to learn how to speak. “Bbbb… – uh, bbb… – uh, bb… – uhhh”. The contrast between black, white and grey gives a simple, yet extremely independent, identity to the movie, and accompanied by the soundtrack signed, Mica Levi, we have a full blown auteur piece on our hands. Then, in an oval shape, an human iris appears. She is born.
Glazer’s two previous movies (Sexy Beast, Birth) shares many similarities with Under the Skin, but none of them aspire to be half as ambitious. It may seem harsh to say, but to avoid any confusion it’s not as much a statement I use to cement them as bad, or movies lacking ambition, it’s more to force the point of Under the Skin‘s.
As said initially, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in the form of a human. She drives around the urban city landscape of Scotland to pick up male strangers , and do scary things to them in pitch black – but reflected – rooms. More than this, I don’t want to say about the plot. It is a movie where the terms; Plot, narrative and story is mixed and mashed – more so than any other movie – and it’s hard to talk about certain plot elements, without spoiling some of the experience. The things she does to the men she successfully seduces is stylised to no end, but it works surprisingly well thanks to the production design by Chris Oddy and (again) the soundtrack by Mica Levi. There is a sense of controlled passion and impulse in the soundtrack, which according to Levi, has changed quite a lot from the original intention. It’s gloomy, dark, distorted and all around hypnotic. But maybe the best aspect of Levi’s music, is how she’s made it function as an extension of the scene, rather than an extra layer of noise. There are signature notes and tunes to different scenes of the movie, and as a result, it becomes much more than a stylised soundtrack.
The pitch black (reflected) room is intense and imposing in its simplicity, an when Scarlett Johansson – and her male counterparts – inhabit the space, it feels as if they’ve set foot inside a horrifying limbo with no hope of escape. In its vast blackness, the room presents an idea of claustrophobia more so than agoraphobia. Production designer, Oddy, has also fitted the room with descending floor plates, which themselves have a black liquid underneath that flows out and engulfs the people in the room (pictured above).
It is however, Scarlett Johansson and how some of the male characters were casted, that really makes this movie a shining example of exceptional filmmaking. Male characters first; most of them was playing their first scenes – those of which they meet her (the alien) for the first time – without knowing they were being filmed. As Scarlett Johansson drives around the streets of Scotland, in her white mini-van, there are hidden cameras all around, which let’s her pick up strangers and initiate a scene. When it is said and done, they’ve been asked permission to be used in the movie, and maybe play a few extra scenes. It’s easy to see which of the men are actors, and which are not, but this is not as negative as one might expect. It gives for an authentic feel few movies can challenge, and they really do deserve applause for the scenes where they are actually acting – because some of these scenes are really challenging and (most likely) out of their comfort zone.
Full fledged nudity, underwater scenes, and they all have to express a multitude of feelings and emotions towards Scarlett and their situation. Some of these performances have a few rough edges, but nothing to take away from the rest of the movie. It rather reinforces an idea the movie is presenting, but to talk about this would be to spoil too much.
Luckily, Scarlett Johansson gives us the best performance of her career. She embodies the alien within her character, and shows a side of herself I haven’t seen since Sofia Coppola’s, Lost in Translation. She embodies a pure human spirit in a way few other actresses do, and feels authentic and real throughout. Only in last years, La vie d’Adèle, have I seen an actress wholeheartedly disappear into their character like this.
I can now respect and thank some higher power, that Glazer couldn’t/didn’t make this movie when he first started thinking about it right after Michel Faber’s book released in 2000. Because the statement he wanted to make would be almost impossible without Scarlett Johansson. It is a movie with more than one way of interpretation, but without a doubt, it’s a movie about the idea of what it is to be a human.