Friday 19 April 2024

Under the Skin | review by Jacob Edwards

This review originally appeared in TQF65 (December 2019).

Out from under but still only skin-deep.

Under the Skin features Scarlett Johansson as a vulnerable yet predatory alien whose dark incomprehension of the world sets up a contrast by which director (and co-writer) Jonathan Glazer sets out to capture something of the human condition. Whether Glazer achieves this is debatable. Assuredly his film encapsulates the best and worst of the arthouse experience.

An art film owes no debt to the mass market. Thus it need not make the sort of expository concessions that serve so jarringly to insult the intelligence of those who possess any. Under the Skin exemplifies – at least at first – the virtues of storytelling without pandering. Johansson’s alien nature; her taking on of human form; the first hints of her purpose: these elements are established subtly and without dialogue in the first tenth of the film. All talk thereafter is naturalistic, existing not for the viewer but rather the characters. (Indeed, many of the conversations were unscripted and captured by hidden cameras.) Glazer paints a motion picture and trusts that his audience will learn by osmosis. Compared with the dross so stiltedly put out by Hollywood movies, this is good. It is refreshing to interpret a film obfuscated not by formulaic contrivances but rather the unapologetic intent of the production to walk its own path, alone.

But even if the destination is not rigidly defined, an art film does owe to its smaller, more discerning audience the impetus to go somewhere. By most definitions Under the Skin fails to do this. Glazer conveys an impression, a mood, yet he leaves too many questions unanswered; worse, he leaves us with no real desire to have them answered. Under the Skin is based on the eponymous book by Michel Faber. Whereas the story in written form evinces distinct themes and a clear narrative, the cinematic rendition is just as clearly (and quite pointedly so) art for art’s sake, not the viewer’s. We discern the intent of Johansson’s alien, but not her motivations. We sense her straying from this purpose, but know not why. We see her striving to understand, to blend in, perhaps to become human, and yet even as she does so her faculty for human facsimile appears to diminish. And throughout it all her sinister motorcycling compatriot races gratuitously around the countryside, adding atmosphere but little else to events as they unfold. For all the film’s artfulness there is no closure.

An art film may take certain liberties with its audience’s time and forbearance. Lack of catharsis notwithstanding, Under the Skin does this to good effect. Lingering shots of the Scottish countryside and of Johansson driving the city roads convey a bleakness, a loneliness, an apartness more powerful than could be achieved within the tight editing of mainstream releases. The use of little-known (and in many cases unknown) actors lends a human realism to the world through which Johansson’s character moves, and provides a perfectly non-Hollywood backdrop against which to portray and play out her alien experiences. Johansson’s acting is exemplary, again making full use of the latitude afforded by Glazer’s direction and the art-focused house rules. Her disassociation; her hesitations in searching for the correct response; her mechanical processes and deliberate imitations: all of these present compellingly as the inner/outer workings of an alien wilfully if uneasily subsumed by her human form, while to those around her never marking her as anything more than a disturbed young woman to be either helped or exploited. For appreciation’s sake, if not necessarily enjoyment’s, Johansson’s performance gives some justification to Glazer’s relentlessly cinematographic leanings.

Less resolute, less satirical than the book from which it is so loosely adapted, Under the Skin takes up none of Faber’s preoccupation with environmental degradation and the ethics of industrialised livestock production (direct reference to which is omitted save for one gruesome, visceral snippet). The film is evocative, to be sure, yet on a narrow, personal level and with sufficient ambiguity to have been identified at once as an exploration of feminism, immigration, sexual and racial politics, rape culture, existentialism and twenty-first century humanity. Like any piece of art, Under the Skin can be whatever the viewer makes of it; to those who prefer a slightly less nebulous approach, it is something of an ordeal. Stylish visuals aside, Glazer makes his point until it becomes well and truly blunted. Pure cinema? A mind-melting masterpiece? Of sorts. But if it were hanging in an art gallery, chances are only someone like Johansson’s alien would stand there staring at it for upwards of ninety minutes. Jacob Edwards

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