Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is only something of a distant relative of Michael Faber’s book of the same name rather than a straightforward adaptation. Nine years in the making and going through countless rewrites and edits, Glazer has ditched much of the original book’s straightforward narrative and satirical comment on corporate greed for something altogether more beguiling and unnerving.
It is quite usual these days to caveat write-ups of films by promising no spoilers for the reader, although quite honestly no attempt at explaining this film’s exposition could truly be said to do it justice. Trust me, you just have to go along and watch this one to get the real impression of it.
Set in and around the dismal streets and suburbs of Glasgow, the film tracks an alien figure (Scarlet Johansson, an inspired piece of casting as “Laura”), a vamp seemingly always on the hunt for fresh meat. Glazer contrasts the verité scenes of the Hollywood starlet in the fur coat chatting up Celtic hooligans from her transit van with the glossy doom of the black widow’s nest to disorienting and dismaying effect. It’s like watching some unholy cosmic interlude between Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession and Beadle’s About!
To that end, Under the Skin has been compared variously with the works of Roeg, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Lynch, Noé, Hanneke, Von Trier, Spielberg, Miike and dozens more. This suggests to me that, rather than make a composite work of all these filmmakers, Glazer has somehow managed to create something that has confused and confounded viewers by resembling other works but in fact presents us with something wholly new and impressive. Much like the alien he shows dancing around in her pants in a dilapidated hovel or vomiting back up some black forest gateau in a roadside café, this is a film both in touch with a familiar world we inhabit and at the same time rejecting it as something entirely hostile and dispassionate. This is amplified by Mica Levi’s score that not only gets under your skin but firmly burrows into your ear and refuses to leave long after the lights have come up in the theatre.
This is why Glazer’s film only very slightly loses its grip at the point when it becomes too literal – when we are allowed to see what is really going on underneath the skin. Up until that point it works brilliantly on an ambiguous level, where we are never quite sure whether the “alien” we are presented with is really only one of us, one of the same mass of human insects she feasts upon but given vivid visual licence to her cold imagination. But this is only a very minor issue with a film that is a haunting proposition and a fine work that must be seen.
By Ieuan Jones aka @_ieuman
You can watch ‘Under the Skin’ at Plymouth Arts Centre from 11-17 April.