Jonathan Glazer’s erotic science-fiction masterpiece, starring Scarlett Johannson, is sure to be gracing many an end of decade ‘best of’ list, despite being somewhat of a curveball when it first appeared. Made for a small budget of £8million and with a cast made up largely of unknowns, (some of whom did not even know they were being filmed), it was never going to be a huge box office success. Indeed, if looked at in purely financial terms, it was a flop, making only £5.2million at the global box office. This was a significant loss for A24, the now legendary independent studio, which was at the time still just a fledgling, with this just the seventh film in their roster.
The premise was never going to be an easy sell either, with Johannson playing an alien entity, posing as human, who has come to Earth to seduce and consume lonely or isolated men. The narrative is a wonderful ponderance on what it is to be human, what it is we value and what outsiderdom looks like, all set against the grey, rainy streets of a dishevelled vision of Scotland.
The theatrical trailer did not attempt to hide the fact this is a beautiful and uncompromising arthouse vision, which was unlikely to find it’s home in multiplexes.
Critical reaction at the time of its release was also decidedly mixed, with some critics bemoaning its ‘glacial’ pace and that it was ‘excruciatingly arty’, while others declared it a ‘cinematic masterpiece’. Famously it was another of Glazer’s films which garnered boos at Venice Film Festival. Critics in the ‘masterpiece’ category will now be crowing as the film has found a great deal of traction in the on demand and home viewing market and has indeed been almost universally hailed as a cinematic classic in recent years.
For Glazer the film was a labour of love, almost ten years in the making. He had long wanted to take Michael Faber’s book of the same name from page to screen, but struggled for almost a decade with how to do it. One iteration of the script saw Brad Pitt sign on to play an alien farmer. Script writers came and went. Glazer soon decided that the film he wanted to make was about an alien view of our world. The high budget special effects extravaganza originally planned made way for a distinctly more intimate, sombre affair. Glazer said in an interview with The Guardian in 2004 “I liked having it in my head. Finding the logic, the images. It’s like learning an alphabet, then a language, then writing in it, then trying to write poetry in it.”
Jonathan Glazer’s vision in ‘Under the Skin’ is therefore suitably uncompromising in his portrayal of this poetic vision. The film opens with a black screen and discordant music. The darkness then gives way to spots of light, and we see the creation of an eye. As the light becomes an iris we hear a woman’s voice murmuring in the background. Right from the start Under the Skin sets out its stall as an art-house sci-fi film. Moving from these extreme close ups to long shots of travel through the rainy streets of Scotland, contrast is at the heart of the film. With echos of both Nic Roeg and David Lynch in the visuals, it became a glorious combination of unsettling thriller and body horror.
This contrast continues in the use of glamourous Hollywood actress Scarlett Johannson, who is plunged into the decidedly grey world of normal-looking people. With curly black hair, red lipstick and a fur coat she is every inch the classic femme fatale, drawing lonely men in with the promise of a night alone with her. She manages to be both blank, terrifying and wide-eyed throughout the film, balancing the emotions (or lack thereof) her character battles with, brilliantly. It has to be mentioned that she spends a great deal of the film either in her underwear or completely naked, which doubtless will be a key selling point for lots of people who will stumble across it via internet search engines. Despite this, the scenes never feel gratuitous, as they are designed to show her as a hunter, and not a sexual being, despite the poor men she is luring seemingly not recognising this fact. The camera studies her body in an almost disconnected way, never objectifying, but merely observing.
Many of Johannson’s co-stars were unwitting performers. Having learned to drive a van and master an English accent, Johannson drove around the real Scottish streets talking to real men, with the Director and crew concealed in its rear. The reactions of the men to the gorgeous (and apparently unrecognisable) actress approaching them are so raw and unguarded it changes the dynamic of the film in a remarkable way.
As such, some of the early images of her seductions are the most disturbing scenes I have seen on film. The nightmarish quality of the visuals and the accompanying soundtrack, coupled with some suitably naturalistic performances from the victims, will ensure they haunt your dreams.
The horror isn’t restricted to her hunting sessions. In one particularly disturbing scene on a beach the cries of a baby highlight the lack of the alien character’s humanity, as she is solely focused on the task at hand.
She does experience her own horrors, with the people of Glasgow being portrayed as a parade of the grotesque in her eyes. We begin to wonder who the real aliens are. One section set in a nightclub shows her confusion at the world of the human, with her desperately trying to escape back to the quiet and solitude of life in nature. The every day appears savage and brutal against the tranquility of the natural landscape.
Indeed Scotland’s landscape looks alien and dramatic throughout, with the film-makers making even the most mundane of setting seem slightly off-kilter. Despite the less-than enticing depiction of the city, the countryside sections could well be an advertisement for the Scottish tourist board, with the dramatic, desolate landscape becoming a character in itself.
2013 was an incredible year for Scarlett Johannson. Not only did she make a giant leap of faith taking on this singularly unique role but she also appeared as the voice of Samantha in Spike Jones ‘Her’ and as Barbara in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ‘Don Jon’. All of these niche, offbeat roles came just a year after appearing in the first of the mega summer blockbuster hit ‘The Avengers’. However ‘Under the Skin’ may be her most arresting performance to date.
Another ground-breaking element of the film is Micah Levi’s accompanying score, which lends an air of menace that has barely been rivalled since. Levi had not composed for film before and approached the endeavour with caution, keeping it secret from those around her. Like Glazer she found herself obsessed with it, trying to capture the alien’s experiences and reflect that in sound. Messing with the harmonics of instruments to the point where they sound human really adds a chilling and oddly erotic edge to the imagery, straddling the line between beauty and horror.
The whole film is so unlike anything that had come before it it is not hard to see why it was met with a mixture of derision, indifference and joy. The passage of time has enabled a wider audience to come to it with fresh eyes and appreciate the complete cinematic freedom that it offers up, unfettered by the confines of big budget cinema, with some truly startling scenes that will haunt you forever.
Deadline recently revealed that Glazer will be back working for A24 and that his Under the Skin follow-up will be set in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Deadline reports “the film is going to be shot in Poland. Glazer’s script is loosely based on British author Martin Amis’s novel ‘The Zone Of Interest.’ The book centres around a Nazi officer who falls in love with the commandant’s wife and is told from the perspective of the two characters, plus a Jewish Sonderkommando.“
Time will tell if this new film can match the cinematic heights of ‘Under the Skin’.