Under the Skin (London Film Festival 2013)
It’s been nine years since Jonathan Glazer made Birth, a psychological horror with a frightening atmosphere ruined by a lack of ambiguity. He’s seemingly learned from the experience with Under the Skin, a wonderfully indecipherable sci-fi tale that transforms Glasgow into an unfamiliar landscape. At least, that’s the perception of the protagonist, an alien intercepting the body of a young woman (Scarlett Johansson in a black wig); mingling with members of the public, she struggles to fit in with a society spun through a cycle of nightclubs, sex and loneliness.
Johansson’s body behaviour establishes an entity unaccustomed to ordinary surroundings, whether a shopping centre or beach. Driving around at night, she picks up horny Glaswegian men with strong accents and football shirts. She then takes them home: they wander into a surreal darkness, undress, and an erect man walks into a watery grave. The vivid scenes are a mesmerising kick to the head, all set to a screeching score that reverberates around the room.
Glazer reportedly shot much of Under the Skin with hidden cameras to capture locals truly reacting to Johansson’s flirtations (“When’s the last time you had a girlfriend?”). Whether or not that’s true, that idea centres upon an ambition to dig deep into the strange qualities of everyday life – and how, to another planet, we are the aliens.
The mostly wordless film explains little about the alien’s purpose (unlike the novel upon with it is based). Instead, the cold atmosphere (as mirrored by Scotland’s breezy weather) conjures up the displacement of modern life: men are slaves to their libido, with repetition highlighting the self-destructive side of biology.
Under the Skin is part of the London Film Festival’s “Official Competition” strand. Screening information can be found here.
United States of America
107 mins approx