As a concept, I reject the idea of describing films as “marmite” – something that you’d either love or hate. When it comes to films as visionary and likely to divide opinion such as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, I find it hard to believe that even the harshest critics won’t find anything to praise about the directors unique vision.
Scarlett Johansson stars as an unnamed alien who has landed in Glasgow to consume the souls of lonely men. In the best of the film’s innovations, hidden cameras follow Scarlett around the city centre- all conversations she has are with locals who inexplicably don’t recognise her (but then again, who would expect to see one of the world’s most famous actresses walking through a crowded shopping centre in Scotland?) and her co-stars are mostly people picked up off the street who didn’t realise they were initially being filmed. I began to become reminded of Steve Martin comedy Bowfinger, where he plays the producer of a film whose main star is unaware that he’s even in it.
The normality of the British high street is changed considerably when placing Johansson in at its centre, becoming as alien to us as it does to her character. Rather oddly, the film has been marketed as an erotic thriller – and although there is nudity (including not one but two full erect penises, a rare sight in mainstream cinema) it’s too surreal to appease anybody looking for that sort of thing. For example, one of the victims (and one of the few professional actors involved in the project) has a facial disfigurement, and he wants to interrupt any sexual activity in order to go to Tesco. Basic Instinct this is not.
Under the Skin is an adaptation of a novel by Michel Faber, and yet the cinematic narrative bares little resemblance to its source text- all creative decisions were made by letting Scarlett drive wherever she wanted in the van her character uses to pick up hitchhikers. This unpredictability means the film varies wildly in pacing and tone; it’s glacially paced, and yet is one of the most edge of your seat films I’ve ever sat through. I’ve always felt that horror is the hardest genre for any director to pull off, and following his more evidently Stanley Kubrick inspired previous film Birth ten years ago (and an advert he made more recently for Cadbury’s Flake that was rejected for being too horrifying, and resulted in him being involved in a lawsuit when it leaked online), Glazer seems to have unintentionally positioned himself as the most reliable director in that genre – even though neither film classifies as horror in any traditional sense.
Although the review you are reading is brimming with ecstatic praise, it should be noted that there are frequent moments in the film that just don’t work, for example the opening “creation” sequence which looks like a poundstretcher reimagining of Kubrick’s 2001. Yet the film is so uncompromising in bringing this vision to the screen that any flaws the film has end up working in its favour.
Repeat viewings won’t make Under the Skin any clearer, but will cement its status as a cinematic game changer.