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Film Review: Under The Skin

Wednesday 23 April 2014
Words Darren Skene

I must begin with a pre-emptive apology: I’m sorry that throughout this review I will be repeatedly forced to place apostrophes around the word ‘real’. I know you know what I mean by ‘real’, but you might have to humour me, because apparently the making of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin has rather troubled some audiences and critics.

In the film, there are certain fragments of dialogue between a disguised and Anglicised Scarlett Johansson and a selection of unwitting Glaswegian males. These are in fact elaborate ‘hidden camera’ setups: the men are not actors and have no idea they’re being filmed. She attempts to lure them into her van by asking for directions to the M8. Some hop in after a little polite deference, others are having none of it. What the audience queasily, nervously suspects, and eventually comes to know, is that ‘she’ is in fact a lone predatory alien, involved in some kind of ongoing, unexplainable operation. The destination for those men lusty and blinkered enough to follow her all the way is surely one of the most striking, elemental and memorable images in recent science fiction.

Of course, somewhere between these initial exchanges and the viewer’s introduction to her lair, the narrative drops the ‘real’ people and the actors step in. At these moments, the style of the film jumps from documentary collage to darkly surreal explorations of a void-like space, and this has also proven too drastic a shift of imageries for some. By this point, I was totally absorbed – the film had made a number of daring leaps in its conception and execution, and for me, it had landed them with confidence. I had ceased to be distracted by the question of which men were actors; in fact, I’m not sure I had even been distracted in the first place.

I’m trying to imagine the different possible objections to Glazer’s technique. Nothing that has been included has the whiff of exploitation about it. Is it that he’s denying the audience an easily appreciable boundary between ‘stolen’ content and total construction? Is this deceitful? Is it needless provocation? And is there even such thing as ‘total’ construction anyway?

It feels unnatural to be asking these questions. An isolated viewing of the film wouldn’t have provoked them from me – they’ve been raised by its marketing and press junket commentary. What’s real in the service of a construction is both real and part of that construction, or put in another way: constructions are always an assemblage of real things tooled towards a particular end. The fact that some viewers have been distracted by questions of complicity is evidence that somehow, as an audience, we have confused the distinction between how stories are built and how films are made. In future, perhaps Under The Skin could be seen as a lesson in these fundamentals.

There’s also an inherent irony in spending the duration wondering what’s ‘real’ and who’s ‘in on it’, because ideas of artifice and superficiality are in fact central to the film. Getting hung up on the hidden camera stuff is to be misdirected towards the wrong level of artifice – far more relevant to Glazer is the question of how red lipstick and a little open-ended small talk can endear a well drilled non-human to a whole host of real (albeit marginalised or unremarkable) humans.


These humans for the most part respond in exactly the ways we might expect – they are helpful, informal, occasionally slightly awkward. Knowing what we do about how the film was made, it’s tempting to suppose that the most unselfconscious interactions with the disguised Scarlett Johansson may not have been signed off by their participants once the PR explained to them what they’d just done. But the film’s metafictional and perhaps satirical aspects (hinging on notions of celebrity and beauty) are really only neat turns of postmodernism – its power does not rest on them. As one would hope of an adaptation of a successful novel, the central premise of the story is strong enough to support itself, independently of (or perhaps even despite) the provocative circumstances of its ‘real-world’ retelling via Glazer’s cameras.

Montages of mundane urban Scottish imagery accumulate, and the viewer’s alienation builds. This is one of the film’s clearest aims – to present the familiar as alien in alignment with its alien protagonist – and also one of its most evident successes. I felt suddenly able to view Under The Skin like a foreigner – someone who wouldn’t necessarily know what’s sold in those chain stores, how pronounced or softened those accents are, the age of those cars by their registration plates. Little things perhaps, and yet with the air of tense observation cultivated by the direction and Mica Levi’s powerful and frightening score, I was able to theoretically distance myself from them. The imagery was no longer ‘mundane’, and so the transition from Glasgow exteriors to a limitless alien pool didn’t seem so jarring. ‘Realism’ is a moot point under the weight of such heavy, estranging tones, and suddenly these men seem to have fallen under a spell. Once mere passers-by, they have become avatars of unswerving desire, pitiable animals crossed over into a realm in which they are prey. In one of the most unnerving sequences, two victims face each other in their strange alien prison. Suddenly drained of all their male swagger, they reach to connect, in acknowledgement of their shared captivity. It is a futile gesture.

Under The Skin was in development for nine years; it’s rare that stories with such a long gestation period are eventually revealed in such a pared-down form, at least in the world of movies. Certainly the stripping of superfluities is something I associate more with literature. As an adaptation, then, it cannot be accused of laziness. Glazer and his screenwriter Walter Campbell have repeatedly gutted this story and questioned it at its most elemental level, resulting in a movie with a willfully tight focus and a refusal to explain or contextualise the motives of its characters. If Glazer were to have begun addressing ‘why’ questions, instead of presenting things purely as phenomena to which we are at least partly able to relate – seduction, being an outsider, observation of other life – then he may well have written himself into a Christopher Nolan-style trap of overstretched explanatory framings.

As it stands, the lack of a wider context for this alien activity helps to foreground the primitive arc of Johansson’s character. It forces the viewer to hone in on the small moments of deliberation upon the form she has taken: a peculiar one, but undeniably suited to the task. Glazer contrives a few key sequences that serve as a kind of litmus test for the ‘humanity’ of the alien, and through these she is revealed more as a pawn and cipher than a predator. Her tentative connections with humankind are as hazardous and inexplicable to her as the contents of the lair are to the unwitting Glasgow males she brings home. Eventually it occurs to us that it’s the anonymous motorcyclists who are the real threat – tracking and cleaning up the evidence, they attempt to ensure the continuation of whatever dark programme we are witnessing.

A final observation: the ‘now’ doesn’t really feel very modern in Under The Skin. For all the supposed technological advancement and interconnectivity of the early 2000s, Glazer’s alien comes into contact with virtually none of it. The dull-eyed, ambling weekday high-street shoppers and the nagging isolation of the forest are as they were for much of the latter part of the last century. I got the feeling that they will probably remain this way for the next century too.

Words: Dave Hamilton-Smith