Unnerving is the word that I most often use when describing Under the Skin and that’s a good word for all Jonathan Glazer films. This is only his third feature and with his first two, Sexy Beast, and Birth, he created equally complex films with deceptively simple surfaces. Moving more into abstraction with each film, Under the Skin strips away narrative a bit more again. Honing his techniques through music videos, Glazer takes a bold approach by using a surveillance camera technique to create high-quality, visually arresting images. It’s an adaptation of a novel and while I haven’t read the novel, the film has its own visual and sonic logic that is closer to experimental film than a novel.
The enigma at the centre of Under the Skin is Scarlett Johansson and she travels around Scotland in a white van seeking out men. She’s unnamed in the film (and in the credits which only list actors) and we never get a glimpse into her motivations or feelings. It’s a film concerned with surfaces which adds to the unease that we feel while watching it. Maybe a hint to the structure of logic of the film comes at the beginning when we see her character looking at an ant crawling on her hand. Is the perspective of the film related to the difference between the perception of us and an ant?
It’s a film that willingly defies expectations and interpretations. In a similar way that Birth had a structural framework based on Un Chien Andalou and Belle de Jour (and shared Buñuel’s co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere), Under the Skin’s framework is one of observing interactions Johansson and other characters. Her dialogue is like a relationship Turing test coldly calculated to entice men into her van. Shot and edited with the cool precision of Kubrick, it echoes the master while still having Glazer’s own distinctive voice. While the visuals are distinctive, it has one of the most interesting soundtracks of the past decade. It’s an odd, quiet, and opaque film that haunted me for days afterwards.