Under the Skin (2013) review: Unsettling, disturbing and brilliant

Film

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Directed by Jonathan Glazer Written by: Walter Campbell (screenplay), Jonathan Glazer (screenplay) Michel Faber(novel)

Starring: Scarlett JohanssonJeremy McWilliamsLynsey Taylor Mackay

The blurbs say: “A mysterious woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. Events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery.”

The verdict: The film opens with a black screen and discordant music. The darkness then gives way to spots of light, and we see the creation of an eye. As the light becomes an iris we hear a woman’s voice murmuring in the background. Right from the start Under the Skin sets out its stall as an art-house sci-fi film. As Jonathan Glazer himself said, this is an alien film without any aliens in it. Independance Day this ain’t.

More in the vein of Donnie Darko or The Man who Fell to Earth, Under the Skin follows the journey of Laura (Scarlett Johansson), the aforementioned ‘mysterious’ (read: alien) woman who stalks the streets of Glasgow looking for vulnerable men to bring back to her distinctly unusual home. She is shadowed by another mysterious figure, a man on a motorbike, whose purpose seems to be cleaning up after her. But who is Laura? Why is she here? And what is she doing with all of these men?

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Under the Skin has some of the most arresting and haunting imagery I have seen on film for a long time, and comparisons with the films of David Lynch are, to an extent, inevitable. It joins the recent stable of more understated sci-fi/arthouse fair such as Upstream Color and Snowpiercer, with beautiful art direction and sound design throughout. There are however, moments when it feels like the film has accidentally been put on pause, with lingering shots of mirrors and bleak landscapes sometimes feeling interminable.

Johansson is impeccable in the role of Laura, carrying off a remarkably good English accent. She manages to be both blank, terrifying and wide-eyed throughout the film, balancing the emotions (or lack thereof) her character battles with, brilliantly. It has to be mentioned that she spends a great deal of the film either in her underwear or completely naked, which doubtless will be a key selling point for lots of people who will stumble across it via internet search engines. Despite this, the scenes never feel gratuitous, as they are designed to show her as a hunter, and not a sexual being, despite the poor men she is luring seemingly not recognising this fact. The camera studies her body in an almost disconnected way, never objectifying, but merely observing.

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Some of the early images of her seductions are the most disturbing scenes I have seen on film. The nightmarish quality of the visuals and the accompanying soundtrack, coupled with some suitably naturalistic performances from the victims, will ensure they haunt my dreams for quite some time.

The horror isn’t restricted to her hunting sessions. In one particularly disturbing scene on a beach the cries of a baby highlight the lack of Laura’s humanity, as she is solely focused on the task at hand.

She does experience her own horrors, with the people of Glasgow being portrayed as a parade of the grotesque in her eyes. We begin to wonder who the real aliens are as we see life through her eyes. One section set in a nightclub shows her confusion at the world of the human, with her desperately trying to escape back to the quiet and solitude of life with nature.

Scotland’s landscape looks alien and dramatic throughout, with the film-makers making even the most mundane of setting seem slightly off-kilter. Despite the less-than enticing depiction of the city, the countryside sections could well be an advertisement for the Scottish tourist board, with the dramatic, desolate landscape becoming a character in itself.

Under the Skin is beautiful, un-nerving, unsettling and disturbing, and will leave you with a thousand questions, but provides endless food for thought. This will not be a favourite for mainstream audiences, but for lovers of cerebral sci-fi with arresting visuals, it will truly get under your skin.*

Now I’m off to buy Michel Faber’s book to try and work out what it was all about.

9 out of 10

 

*sorry.

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