Under The Skin (2014) – Review

Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Written by Walton Campbell from the novel by Michael Faber
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan

“I know”, says Glazer, “let’s make a movie about a woman that drives around Glasgow in a Transit van!” The rest of the assembled suits look puzzled, and slightly worried that Glazer might just have lost his marbles. Still, they indulge him, for now. After all, he did make Sexy Beast and Birth, starring Nicole Kidman, plus some music videos for Radiohead. He can’t be all bad, right? They obviously saw something in him. Glazer is gesticulating wildly by now, barely able to contain himself. “We’ll get Scarlett Johansson to play the woman and have her trudging around Glasgow town centre, chatting up the local Celtic fans! It’ll be brilliant!!”
The suits may be smiling, their perfectly coiffured heads bobbing appreciatively, but their quickly glazing eyes are saying “right then, I think we’re done here. Just need to get me to an exit, pronto.”
Well, perhaps that’s how it could have gone. You might feel that’s how it should have gone. But no. This is Film4 and the BFI. And with these angels of cinematic mercy, anything is possible. You just have to believe. You just never know. Pinch yourself. This might just work.
At the tail end of last year, Johansson played two polar opposites. In Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’, she was a sentient, ebullient yet disembodied computer operating system who had to express her acting chops without ever being so much as seen on screen. In Glazer’s project here, she is in every scene, yet barely says anything that isn’t absolutely necessary but gives a performance that is just as, if not more, effective. One project brimming with unseen emotion, another purposely displaying an all too clear lack of it.
Based on the novel by Michael Faber, those that aren’t well-read enough to have picked up the book at some stage prior to watching this can rightly be expected to gingerly put their hand up and ask for help. The film does these viewers no favours whatsoever and is entirely unapologetic about it. Frankly, if you don’t get it, you need to be trying harder. After all, Glazer seems to be saying, if you wanted to leave your brains at the door of the theatre, you should be watching something less taxing. Practically devoid of a narrative to speak of, the near two hour running time is spent voyeuristically following Johansson’s character as she drives around in her van, picking up suitably available men, taking them to any number of dilapidated houses she appears to have at her disposal, on the promise of what is assumed by the men in question to be some kind of sexual reward just simply for turning up. Of course, their fate is a good deal less orgasmic.
Described by many as a ‘Marmite’ movie (you either love it or you hate it), Under The Skin garnered as many disparaging comments as gushing compliments. Depending on what your reasons for seeing this are will largely dictate just how good a time you are going to have with this. If you’re after artistic, emotive, considered and thought provoking drama then you will be well served. If you’re just there to see Johansson without her pants on, you will get that too, but you’re going to need to be patient. The story (such as it is) is in no hurry to get to its finale, even if you are, so the ‘boring’ labels may have some foundation, if you’re not known for your patience.
Given such miniscule exposition (and I really mean very little) you might find your mind wandering during those moments, stuck in the van, with nothing to do. So you go with our lead, always against the flow, her perfectly believable diminution countering every scene. The beauty of a rose that makes her bleed with its thorns, the wave of local women on the way to the nightclub that scoop her up and whisk her off whether she likes it or not. There is beauty and brutality on show if you care to look for them.
Her actions, from cityscape to hilltop are followed by a mysterious man on a motorcycle, who appears to be, in some capacity, both protector and supervisor for her actions. He can be found removing evidence of her presence wherever she has been. A task that becomes increasingly difficult as she begins, we surmise, to understand what it means to be human.
And this approach works well for Glazer, as if suggesting that the best individual to judge humanity probably wouldn’t be human at all. The men that she meets are, almost completely (with a single notable exception), one-dimensional, single-minded predators that simply cannot get over the fact that their next conquest is practically lying down with her legs in the air for them (metaphorically speaking) without any regard for their own safety or the ability to question her motives. Personally, if this happened to me, I’d be looking for the hidden cameras. Not so here though with the men that become her strangely willing victims.Under The Skin is ambiguous and captivating, enigmatic and fascinating. As a study of humanity, it is pointed and focused albeit rarely positive. As social comment, it is not complimentary, as our lead is almost as confused by the actions of her victims as we are confused by the actions of others in our everyday lives. Johansson is outstanding again and with this and ‘Her’ in her locker, she is continuing to impress by proving what a major acting force she is. Great direction again from Glazer, beautiful cinematography and a stunning, understated performance from Johansson make this simply unmissable cinema. Impossible to tear your eyes away from, this may be a head-scratcher for many, but it is nonetheless a fantastic experience.

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