Scarlett Johannson plays a mysterious being seemingly only inhabiting the human form we see her in. After a roadside meeting with a motorcyclist co-conspirator she begins her slow trawl around the roads of Glasgow, trailing and selecting men before slowly pulling up besides them and engaging in flat-voiced flirtation. If they offer to get in, they take their first step into a nightmare. And so the movie progresses, until the time the being wearing Scarlett’s face deviates from her pattern, to her motorcyclist handler’s displeasure…
When I first saw it, it was at the 2013 London Film Festival. My favourite movies from that were 12 Years a Slave and Only Lovers Left Alive, and Under the Skin was in third place at best.
That was because director Jonathan Glazer chooses to show us the world through Scarlett’s eyes – alien and just on the edge of comprehension. To achieve the required alienation we have lengthy shots of abstract forms, but also urban and natural landscapes held so long that they too are defamiliarised under the viewers gaze. This technique makes sense, but for a sleepy cinema-goer who’s already a little burned out from trying to fit so many movies around his work schedule, it caused my brain to shut down. The movie felt a good 45 minutes longer than it actually was.
AND YET. About a week later, scenes from the movie started to creep back into my brain. Shots, sequences, even sounds… A film that I’d seen, half-enjoyed and put to one side started to reconstitute itself, lurking around at the edge of my dreams. There are moments in Under The Skin that I now realise I’ll never forget – in some corner of the mind, it’s changing the way I see the world. Is that the mark of great cinema?
There’s nothing quite like this movie’s mix of cinema verite and abstract science fiction. Scrabbling about to compare it to something else, the most I can say is:
Beyond this, in amoungst the moments that will haunt me forever, the moment that made me jump out of my seat and the moments that made me wonder when the shot was going to end was my favourite moment of all. Scarlett Johannson, sitting on a sofa in a shabby suburban semi in rainy Scotland, fixated on the TV… playing reruns of Tommy Cooper. “Jar, spoon. Spoon, jar, jar spoon,” says Cooper. Outside there is gathering dark and a beckoning woodland. Slowly it becomes less clear who the aliens really are.
Pope Grade: A-