Venice 2013: Under The Skin
Posted on Thursday September 5, 2013, 08:09 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Jonathan Glazer’s third film received a sort-of kicking at the now awards-predicting Telluride film festival, where its presence as some sort of special “preview” in advance of its Venice world premiere will forever put off producers, notably British ones, from ever doing that kind of thing again. The reviews from that fest, notably from Variety, braced us for the worst, but most critics were pleasantly surprised when the film surfaced on the Lido. While Under The Skin is certainly difficult, sometimes impenetrably so, it joins a burgeoning number of films – this year alone – that deal in abstracts and do not give a flying fuck about commercial considerations. It’s perhaps not as haunting as Only God Forgives, arguably not as frustrating as Upstream Colour, and definitely not as psychedelic as A Field In England. But this is definitely a significant movie, British or not, and there are certainly going to be repercussions – good ones – from it.
At the core of the film is Scarlett Johansson’s nameless central character; we see her at the beginning taking the clothes from a dead woman’s back and putting them on. From here, she gets into a van and begins a tour of the Glasgow area, where she engages local men in flirty conversation (conducted, it must be said, in a very good English accent). I’m not sure if this is spoiler territory or not, but it becomes creepily clear that this woman is not of this world, as the men discover when what they think will be a sexual fantasy come true turns out to be something terrifying and deadly. The woman goes through this procedure several times, but finally something changes in her. Quite what is hard to say, but at this point the film changes direction, with the woman disappearing from the “handlers” who seem to control her and going distinctly off the grid.
Glazer has said repeatedly that he wanted this story to show the world through “alien eyes”, and that is exactly what his film does best. The real world is shown in crisp digital, making full use of the non-celluloid clarity of the image, yet when the story dictates it, Glazer makes the leap into exquisite and astonishing fantasy, mostly in the scenes in which the woman’s victims meet their hair-raising end. Without having read the book, it’s hard to say for sure what the film is ‘about’, but it does seem that Glazer has fashioned an interesting essay about the nature of species. We never really get to know who or what the woman is, but we do see that in her involvement with mankind she does start to go native, developing curiosity, empathy and finally humanity. Is it purely mimetic? Or something spiritual? That’s a big question, and the film handles it with powerful understatement.
Indeed, there is something quite exquisite and perfect in the casting of Scarlett Johansson alone, herself an anomalous creature whether shopping in the fluorescent hubbub of Boots or tripping over in amid the crowds on the pavement of Sauciehall Street. She plays the part with good grace, since the character has no character arc, no understandable motive and, from the look of things, very little in the way of personal comfort. But against the odds both she and Glazer have created an affecting story that does speak to the soul, a poetic journey of discovery that completely conveys the protagonist’s otherness.
The average Scarlett Johansson fan will likely hate it, and even admirers of Glazer’s previous work (Sexy Beasts, Birth) are not guaranteed an easy ride. But this is a bold and sometimes visually breathtaking piece of punk-art cinema that gives a lot of food for thought, a trip through dark matters to inspire the kinds of thoughts and fears that usually only ever come to us in nightmares.