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Under the Skin

Monday, 26 May, 2014

For many people, the idea of Scarlett Johansson picking them up from the side of the road for a spontaneous nocturnal rendezvous would be nothing less than a dream come true. But after viewing Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, they may very well come to approach the idea with a greater degree of caution.

From what can be gleaned from the limited information provided by the film, Johansson plays an alien seductress in human form, trawling the streets of Scotland in order to lure lonely men to what might be best described as an otherworldly void. This may be an accurate description of the events that take place on screen, but it perhaps does not quite do justice to what is an incredibly haunting and immersive cinematic experience.

Many have already compared Under The Skin to the work of legendary British director Stanley Kubrick, particularly in its effective blending of surreal elements with a clinically dispassionate approach towards its main character. Yet by taking otherwise recognisable cinema tropes and refracting them through an arthouse lens, it is arguably equally indebted to the moody genre abstractions of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives.

As a result, what on paper reads as the synopsis for a trashy B-movie—ScarJo as a sexually predatory extraterrestrial—rises to be nothing less than a full blown existential musing on the essential nature of human identity. By adopting the perspective of an alien visitor, Glazer renders everyday scenes of a visit to a shopping mall or bar as inherently unfamiliar experiences, thereby allowing the viewer to re-evaluate these environments from a critical distance. The Scottish setting only serves to contribute further to this sense of alienation, since many of the men Johansson’s character encounters speak with such incredibly thick and indecipherable accents.

Mica Levi’s alternately abrasive and ethereal score is also worth noting. It effectively combines with the fastidiously detailed cinematography to sustain an oppressively tense atmosphere throughout. The unrelenting ambiguity and restraint of Under The Skin may not be to everyone’s tastes, but this by no means should deter potential audiences from seeking it out. Don’t be surprised to find this a fixture among many critics’ end of year selections.