Looking Back: Under the Skin (2013)

by Cookie N Screen

Highbrow and art-house cinema have spent a long time trying to find the balance between style and substance. A lot of them, it is safe to say, fall into the former, abandoning the depth of a story for pretty images in an attempt to stir the audience. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing because sometimes thought-provoking artwork can be outstanding, leaving you squirming with emotions. But it is disappointing for characterisation and plot to be abandoned for look. One director has used art, imagery and more to enhance his tales instead of replacing them. His name is Jonathon Glazer and he has wowed us again with Under The Skin.

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Under The Skin is his recent British independent film. It tells the story of an unnamed alien who comes down to Scotland in order to prey on young males. She picks them up in a white van, takes them to an unknown location and they disappear. But when she picks up a young man with neurofibromatosis, she takes pity on him and lets him go. However, the entire encounter leaves her with an identity crisis that she must solve before another alien, in the form of a man on a bicycle, comes to clean up her mess.

Glazer’s work previously on Birth and Sexy Beast shows that he can flit between genre and still bring his keen eye for iconic imagery with him. Under The Skin is no different and the striking visuals are the main pull for the movie. While balancing some guerrilla-esque footage and some truly artistic scenes, Glazer beckons reaction from the grotesque to the divine. He uses the human body as a canvas and contorts it in different ways. What this does is pull the audience behind our alien’s eyes and you’ll feel as though you were dealing with humanity for the first time, all in a very surreal way.

The entrancing Scarlett Johansson takes the lead here and her performance is harrowing, breath-taking and so visceral that you will be taken aback by it. Choosing to give her minimal lines, Johansson encapsulates the alien and strips away her fame for this near impeccable role. Managing to pour emotion into a curious and abandoned creature, she uses her body, movements and expressions to convey a bewilderment with the human species. What starts off as a villainous temptress becomes almost childlike in her wonder at Earth. Johansson plays this extremely well, evolving into an important and iconic actress.

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As mentioned before, none of this aesthetic takes away from the story, written here by Glazer and Walter Campbell and based on a book by Michael Faber. In fact, the themes of isolation and identity are largely at play. The feel of complete alienation in a populated world is not an inhumane trait and our lead (and subsequently several of her race) exploit that in different ways. First, using our need to touch, emotionally and physically, with one another to ensnare and secondly, to explore her own. Mirrored (in story and indeed, in imagery) are two versions of a predator, where she enacts careless moments that are horrific and unjust then switches to become the victim of them. It is an accomplished adaptation that toys with the empathy of the audience, asking them to look under their own skin to find what exactly makes a human.

Including a bizarre and evocative score by Micachu, Under The Skin is an almost perfect movie. In fact, it only suffers from mild pacing issues coming into the second half. Glazer utilises his own imagination as well as the natural beauty of Scotland to create a piece that buries itself under your flesh. A long time after viewing, you will be haunted by this visual feast as well as the turns of the story. Immerse yourself into the thick black goo of Under The Skin, and you’ll leave gasping for air, reaching out for a human to touch.

Simply put, it is thrilling, eloquent elegance.


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