It’s hard to know where to start with ‘Under The Skin’. We’ve waited ten years since Jonathan Grazer’s last film, ‘Birth’ (2004), and this latest film is only his third, yet he has already made a significant name for himself for using the medium to explore thematic and visual ideas that fully embrace everything it has to offer. However, if his previous work has been unusual and difficult to penetrate, it’s nothing compared to ‘Under The Skin’. This is not a film for the pedestrian film-goer.
Based on the novel by Michel Faber, the film follows a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) driving through the Scottish countryside looking for single young men. Or at least she looks like a young woman. In truth, she is an alien being, luring these men to her with her sexual charisma and consuming them. That’s about as far as a synopsis of the film can go, or as far as one is useful, because narrative clarity isn’t at the forefront of this film. We don’t know where she has come from or what her purpose is, or even her name. She is working in conjunction with a man on a motorcycle who cleans up after her, but for most of the film her fleeting relationships are only with these young men.
Walter Campbell’s screenplay is almost completely devoid of dialogue, the narrative handed to Grazer to oversee with some of the most extraordinary visuals we’ve seen for a while. ‘Under The Skin’ is an absolutely extraordinary visual feast, the cinematography from Daniel Landin framing each shot as a work of art. If the screenplay isn’t guiding you through the narrative, the visuals certainly are, evoking Stanley Kubrick at his best. ‘Under The Skin’ is one of those films that defines what cinema is capable of, where dialogue falls away and it becomes a symphony of images and sounds. The score from Mica Levi is utterly extraordinary, a dissonant work akin to modern classical music, supporting the nightmare Grazer is executing on screen. With his collaborators, Grazer has developed an utterly uncompromising vision, the kind of visual bravery we really haven’t seen since the days of Kubrick. It’s also the kind of work that could only exist within the independent world. No studio in its right mind would fund an art film about an alien who kidnaps young men, so thank goodness for the bravery of independent producers for allowing Grazer this degree of creative control.
‘Under The Skin’ is an absolutely extraordinary visual feast, the cinematography from Daniel Landin framing each shot as a work of art.
Perhaps his most extraordinary and bravest collaborator is Scarlett Johansson. I’ve never been too enamoured of her as an actor, but her work in the past twelve months, beginning with her vocal performance in ‘Her’ and culminating in ‘Under The Skin’, have made her suddenly a far more intriguing talent to watch. Without her, this film simply wouldn’t work. As the central figure of the film, everything rests on her, and she easily gives one of her best performances to date. She barely says a word, instead relying on sheer presence to carry the film, and every moment on screen she is utterly arresting. She’s also insanely brave, both in what Grazer asks of her and in her trust in a film with no commercial value whatsoever. This is a significant career move for her, and one that should signal an interesting development for her future. I’ve never found her more mesmerising, hypnotic, horrifying or beautiful than in this film.
In fact, that would be an apt description of ‘Under The Skin’ itself. There are points where the abstract conceit of the filmmaking drives you mad, and I walked out with no idea whether I even liked the film. Then again, maybe that isn’t the point. Jonathan Grazer has returned cinema to the level of experience rather than entertainment, and even at its coldest and most distant moments, you can’t help but be hypnotised by it, disturbed by it and intrigued by it. Image, sound and performance have come together to make this one of the most original and distinctive films in years. This is definitely one for deep lovers of film, and one that offers so much to take in. It might be absolute rubbish, but then again, it might be close to a masterpiece.