Bold, cold and beautiful, Under The Skin is a unique and unsettling experience which defies convention from ambiguous opening to devastating denouement.
Desperately Seeking Siri by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The words ‘unsettling’ and ‘gripping’, danced fleetingly through my thought process as the opening scene of Under The Skin unfolded in a darkened screening room. The frantic bow strokes of a violin accompanying visuals that resemble a kind of Kubrickian nightmare, effectively instilling a deep sense of dread that wedges itself deep into your subconsciousness. Jonathan Glazer’s ominous film marries an unparalleled soundscape with striking visuals that elicit and cajole the most elemental human emotions. Under The Skin analyses what it means to be human by poking our cognitive pressure points and contrasting with the existential incompleteness of an alien femme fatale.
A woman of unknown origin combs the streets and highways of Glasgow for the purposes of abducting unsuspecting men. They are selected, seduced and then lured to her otherworldly lair where they are stripped of humanity and processed like cattle for slaughter. An uncharacteristic gesture of mercy puts the woman at odds with her mission, her purpose and her people, and the hunter soon becomes the hunted.
Behind the wheel of a white Ford transit van, Laura (Scarlett Johannson) trawls the Caledonian streets for prey, her poise and unflinching focus reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Her movement is economical, primeval, animalistic; until she rolls down her window, flashes a smile, and commences the rigmarole of human seduction. These scenes, which illustrate her raison d’être, have an organic, unscripted quality – often quite humorous – evoking a sense that you could be watching via hidden camera, and perhaps are. The culmination of this calculated entrapment is so disturbing and visceral that the prevailing sense of dread established early on is ratcheted up each time she lures another gormless victim to her lair. To say that the death scenes are eerily inventive and disturbing is an understatement; the men descend into the inky blackness of what appears to be oil, and remain there in stasis, muted, until their bodies are mined like cuts of meat.
Seeing the world from Laura’s vacant and emotionless perspective, the banality and humdrum of everyday life is highlighted in suitably depressing fashion. To an alien, the routine and pattern of human existence seems just that; alien. Johannson’s bemused facial expressions highlight how odd our existence may seem to another being. This narrative style is effective in forcing the viewer to ponder the absurdity of the simple tasks we undertake on a daily basis, and somehow make them feel bizarre and unusual. Laura’s disconnect with her surroundings is exacerbated by a deep malaise in her own skin, frequently stealing glimpses of herself in mirrors which reflect a facade that she doesn’t relate to or recognise. Perhaps it’s this introspection that sparks her inexplicable metamorphosis over the course of the film – she doesn’t understand humans but she doesn’t quite understand herself either. We feel empathy for a character unable to comprehend empathy, but feels shame in feeling an obliviousness of self.
Lending to the immersively holistic experience of Under The Skin, the film boasts a masterful palette of sound design and music. Eschewing conventional methods of filming, Glazer and his sound crew captured the sounds around Laura and the wider environment in hidden microphones buried in bags, clothing and props. The end result is analogous to the accompanying ethereal visuals from cinematographer Daniel Landin; unlike anything you’ve experienced before. Mica Levi’s percussive and elegant score is as unsettling and otherworldly as the narrative, and each constituent element of audio and visual prop and compliment the ingenious script.
The most thrilling aspect of Glazer’s film is that it permeates your consciousness, addling your mind from the ambiguous opening shot. It’s a science fiction/horror that defies convention so frequently – and with such aplomb – that there is a real sense that you’ve been exposed to something completely original. The script – adapted from Michael Faber’s award-winning novel – is thematically diverse, touching upon feminism, humanism and fear of the unknown to name but a few. It will be an incredibly divisive film to audiences; lacking a discernible structure and quite often feeling confusingly obtuse. Under The Skin is devastating, brutal, mesmerising and unlike any other cinematic experience, this is masterful, rewarding cinema. Glazer, Johannson and co. bravely go somewhere, we’ve never been before.
Under the Skin is released on 14th March 2014 in the UK