Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams,
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Under the Skin goes to show how much the usual grammar of cinema, the lead-ins, the backstories, the set-ups, the exposition, can be an impediment to wonder and audience engagement. Jonathan Glazer’s movie is uncluttered by any of these. It begins with a montage that could be the convergence of planets but that turns out to be the construction of a human eye, and there’s scarcely a word of intelligible dialogue for the first ten minutes. By this time, your mind is running free, trying to figure out what is going on.
What’s going on is that a female alien has descended on a rough part of Glasgow. She drives around in a white van, picking up various randy Scotsmen. Stripping off to her underwear, she lures them into her cross-dimensional lair, where they sink painlessly through the floor into a kind of blue limbo which drains them of substance. She doesn’t seem to be good or bad; you get the impression she’s a worker bee, her behaviour hardwired rather than a matter of free will. For the first hour the movie follows her working her route and getting to know it.
Stylistically, Under the Skin rolls back the years to the spare, staccato rhythms, elliptical storytelling and grainy, frowsty naturalistic surfaces of Nicolas Roeg’s films of the ’70s, especially The Man Who Fell to Earth (is it a coincidence, or an homage, that Glazer’s alien, like Roeg’s, speaks with an English accent?). It’s an aesthetic that allows room for changes of gear: the fatal seductions take place in a heightened register that’s almost dancelike, accompanied by composer Mica Levi’s extraordinary wailing and thrumming score.
The extended gag at the centre of the film is, of course, that the creature is played by the famous Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson – not quiet an alien descending on these Glasgow mean streets, but the next best thing. The film explores the voyeuristic possibilities of this in various ways. Many sequences were shot covertly using tiny hidden cameras, with Johansson going into real nightclubs and shopping precincts, drawing a crowd when she trips up and lands on her face in the street, peering out of her van to talk with tongue-tied locals who have no idea they are being filmed – dangled like a piece of meat, almost, in front of her public. And, as the word “skin” in the title seems to subliminally promise, she goes nude in several scenes – one of which, where she’s seducing a young man with a deformed face (played by a non-actor-actor who actually has such a deformity in real life), must have required great tact and sensitivity from all concerned.
We don’t just see her skin, we also feel we’re getting under it. Glazer seems to have encouraged Johansson to do something that’s not quite acting, that uses little or no technique, that’s less like performance and more like performance art. There’s no polish to her screen presence; she seems almost gauche, like a first-timer in front of the camera, as though she’s forgotten all she’s learnt and started again – and for someone who’s such a big part of the Hollywood machine, that’s a triumph. Johansson gets major Brownie points for seeming so eager to dissolve the distance between performer and audience by going so far and putting herself in these challenging situations. But there’s a twist. While we’re watching her, she’s watching us too. As she drives around, the windows of her cab are like screens on which the violent and seedy soap opera of human life is playing out, and she takes it all in with a kind of shrinking curiosity. Maybe this is Scarlett Johansson showing what she feels about us? The movie forms a neat voyeuristic circle.
You could go further and read what the alien does to her victims as a metaphor for what she worries she does to her audience – drawing them in and then stranding them in a limbo which slowly chokes them of life. (And if you think that’s a stretch, it’s interesting to note that the alien’s lair is like an empty sound stage, and that the first time we see her, she’s a near silhouette against a blank whiteness that might be a cinema screen.)
Eventually a few practical questions begin to nag – what does she do for petrol money? And you could argue that the last forty minutes, when the story shifts to the countryside, don’t add a great deal to this alien equation. But it hardly matters – the film has worked its magic well before then. Most movies feel like they’re written in prose. Under the Skin is poetry.
The DVD comes with ten brief but interesting featurettes, about 45 minutes’ worth. Glazer explains how they originally wrote a more conventionally elaborate script but couldn’t raise the funds for it, so they were forced to distil the story into its present form. Mica Levi talks about the meaning of the various musical motifs she scored for the soundtrack. There’s interesting stuff about the casting – as well as the innocent bystanders who didn’t know they were being filmed, they used several non-actors (for instance, a woodsman who appears late in the movie was played by the owner of one of the locations where they wanted to shoot). The cab of the alien’s van was packed with hidden cameras, with as many as nine running for four hours each night, the emphasis being on capturing first takes and a flow of fleeting moments. This resulted in masses of footage, which meant that the editing process was key – editor Paul Watts describes how after months of cutting they were still nowhere near having a watchable film and had to throw away what they’d done and start from scratch. What’s striking throughout these interviews is the sense of pride and ownership that Glazer’s crew feel towards the project. Under the Skin might seem personal and auteurist, but making it was clearly a collaborative process.