It’s been almost ten years since Jonathan Glazer’s second feature film, Birth (starring Nicole Kidman) received boos from festival audiences for its now infamous bath scene (neither Kidman or ten-year-old Cameron Bright were naked, it was all down to clever editing and flesh-coloured suits). Since then, with the exception of a couple of music videos, the director has been absent from our screens. Me personally, I’ve always had a peculiar interest in Glazer’s films. Visually they are staggering to watch, Glazer never afraid to throw something new at the camera, the problem is that neither Sexy Beast nor Birth felt like they had enough ideas to warrant their running time. Despite one of Ben Kingsley’s very best performances, Sexy Beast was a run-of-the-mill British crime thriller, ticking all of the sub-genre’s well-worn boxes. While Birth, cinematography-wise, was a tribute to Stanley Kubrick, the film was nowhere near as clever as it thought it was. Just because a film is ambiguous, doesn’t mean it’s in any way profound. Glazer’s films felt like they could have been classics, but managed to miss out on greatness. After watching Birth, I was hoping that Glazer’s next film would get it right.
Unlike Glazer’s previous films, Under the Skin is impossible to describe so that you get a sense of what is going on. The film centres on an alien-robot-creature that takes the form of Scarlett Johansson. Johansson has one job: search for males, seduce them, and take them to an abandoned building somewhere. There the men are trapped in a literal ocean of black, never to be heard from again. Out of the blue, Johansson’s conscience kicks in and she decides to walk the Scottish landscape, questioning who and what she is, curious about the human race. While all of this happens, a man on a motorbike, who may or may not be an alien-robot-creature like Johansson, is busy searching for her.
Under the Skin is a massive step back for Glazer. The film has received endless praise from critics, which baffles me. The only reason I can fathom as to why the film has received such good reviews is because critics don’t want to turn round and say that they don’t get it.
Virtually everything about Under the Skin is below par, especially compared to Glazer’s previous films. There are only a handful of moments where the cinematography throws you, where you think, “I haven’t seen anything like this”. For the majority of the film, cinematographer Daniel Landin points and shoots, using natural lighting. Maybe this is the point; Glazer wants us to observe life the way that Johansson’s nameless character does. Honestly, I couldn’t work out why the visuals were so workmanlike. There are a couple of exceptions. The film’s opening scene where, as far as I can tell, Johansson’s alien-robot-creature is being born, is beautiful and intriguing to watch; a blank screen gradually getting brighter as a human eye is formed. The other outstanding scene is where we find out what happens to Johansson’s unlucky victims once they drown in the black ooze. Apart from this, Glazer’s renowned visual flare is more-or-less absent.
Johansson has received plenty of fanfare from critics. While she does a decent job, it’s hard to understand why she has been given so much acclaim. During Under the Skin’s hundred-and-eight minutes, she puts on a passable English accent, occasionally takes her clothes off, and spends her time looking dazed and confused. It’s not going to put her in the record books for Oscar nominations, like Meryl Streep.
Under the Skin’s narrative has no pace to speak of. Those who watched Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and complained that film was slow should avoid Glazer’s latest at all costs. Under the Skin is not even two hours, yet it feels much longer. This is due to a number of scenes involving Johansson driving round Scotland’s city streets, searching for her next victim. All she does is drive, and keeps driving, and keeps driving, the monotony occasionally broken when Johansson stops the car and looks bewildered, or has a stilted conversation with a man, only to realise he has family or people who will miss him, so she keeps on driving and we start back at the beginning. The problem is that Under the Skin has no clear narrative. This may be down to Michel Faber’s novel, which the film is based on (and, I have to admit, I haven’t read), yet even when Under the Skin looks like it’s about to get interesting – when Johansson leaves her routine of abducting men behind – nothing happens. Literally, nothing happens; there is no shift in pace, Johansson’s character does not change in any discernible way, leading to an ending that is far from satisfactory: the film stops and up come the credits.
What is noteworthy with Under the Skin is Mica Levi’s score. Occasionally alarming, always uncomfortable to listen to, the majority of the film’s score is performed by a string quartet, the pitch altered to give an unnatural sound. It’s terrific stuff, reminiscent of some of the best horror film scores, such as Krzysztof Penderecki’s work on The Exorcist and The Shining. It’s just a shame that the music had to be used for such a sluggish, mediocre film.
I enjoy a bit of ambiguity, where you are left to interpret what you just saw; films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, or Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but Under the Skin is nothing like these films. For most of its running time the film is tiresome to watch, at no point do you feel engrossed in what is happening onscreen, and you certainly don’t care about Johansson’s protagonist or what happens to her. Critics have suggested that the film explores sexuality, that it takes the mundane (walking through a shopping centre, football fans on their way to a match) and makes you observe it up-close and first-hand. Personally, I’m not convinced; it feels like critics are trying to grab hold of any subtext they can find. If another director had adapted Faber’s novel, maybe Under the Skin could have been something tender and enthralling. Glazer’s reworking is pompous and shallow. A number of people walked out during the screening of Under the Skin, I wish I’d done the same.
2 out of 5