Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Glazer’

As I noted in my original review of Under the Skin, this is a movie that doesn’t provide the viewer with explanations. It provides you with the images and then demands that you piece together the story yourself. Since that first review I have read an interview with director Jonathan Glazer in Sight and Sound magazine, and earlier tonight I saw the film a second time. For the past few days I have constantly had scenes from the film running through my mind, to the point that I just had to go back for another viewing. This posting isn’t so much a second review, but a slightly haphazard collection of thoughts that have occurred to me since my first viewing and, particularly, since tonight’s viewing.

One thing to note is that the film opens with a completely black screen and ends with a completely white one, a nice twist on the screenwriting rule-of-thumb that the mood at the end should be the opposite of the mood at the start. On the black screen that we begin with, a small white dot appears, getting larger (or closer), and eventually it becomes apparent that we are seeing the creation of the alien’s eye*. In the final scene we see the burnt black corpse of the alien, and then the camera tilts upwards towards the falling snow, until the screen is entirely filled with white.

Going back to the opening images again, we hear – slightly fuzzily – words being repeated. These, of course, are the alien learning the language “she” will be speaking on earth. But the background to this is rather interesting. From Glazer’s Sight and Sound interview I learned that these rehearsals were not a planned part of the film. The recordings were actually of Scarlett Johansson working on her English accent. Needless to say, this Hollywood superstar is an alien herself when placed in the streets of Glasgow so it seemed quite natural to incorporate these word rehearsals as part of the movie itself.

Previously, I suggested that the alien is storing her human victims as a food source. I have since learned that Michael Faber’s original novel was making quite a strong statement about factory farming. I don’t know how much more detail the book goes into this business of farming, but it did occur to me that the alien is having to expend an awful lot of energy to obtain her human victims. When animals obtain food, there is always a tradeoff to be made by how far an animal must travel, how much food can be carried, and the energy obtained. When I watched the alien trying to drag a body along a beach, it did strike me that this was quite a cost-intensive way of obtaining food. Even the idea of driving around in a van, seeking men who are alone, and then taking them back to a house, seemed like quite a big effort. However, that was a level of reality that I could quite easily push to the back of my mind, as the film has much more interesting things to focus on.

Incidentally, that scene on the beach was really quite extraordinary. The alien is talking to a swimmer clad in a wetsuit, when he spots someone in trouble and goes to assist. A woman is swimming out into rough sea to rescue her dog, who is being carried away from the beach. In turn, the man who is with her has spotted that she is also going to need help, and he starts swimming out to her. I have no idea how this scene was filmed, but it really did look frighteningly dangerous. I was quite concerned for the actors involved! And all the time, the alien watches completely impassively.

In the second half of the film the alien becomes vulnerable. I wasn’t quite sure exactly what brought about this change. The alien stops her van whilst on a country road. Why? Did she run out of petrol? Was there a breakdown? I wondered also whether she might have been disoriented by the fog that had descended; she certainly appeared confused once she actually began walking out in the fog.

The last part of the film seems to be touching on the theme of women’s fears, and particularly the idea that the world can be an alien place for them. A kindly Scottish man offers his assistance and the two of them end up spending time together, and ultimately going to bed together. In this scene, the impassive alien, who has mostly seemed unconcerned with human emotions, actually seems to respond to the man’s attentions. However, in the final scenes of the film the alien is hunted in a forest by a would-be rapist lorry-driver. His attempted rape is pretty ghastly to watch. Even here, though, there is one moment that reminds us that our vulnerable young woman is in fact an alien being. Whilst she is lying on the ground and he is attempting to force himself upon her, we see her eyes turn to the sky. We realise that she is captivated by the falling snowflakes, a phenomenon that she has presumably never experienced before. When the lorry driver realises that this woman is not actually human, he pours petrol over her and sets her alight. The final shot of the alien in flames reminded me of that other classic that ends with a burning in a remote part of Scotland – The Wicker Man (I’m not suggesting this was a deliberate parallel, but who knows?).

In my view, this is a film that deserves recognition at awards ceremonies. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is outstanding. In the first half she alternates between a smiling flirtatiousness that few men could resist, and an impassively blank face that gives absolutely nothing away. Later, in the lovemaking scene her behaviour indicates something that we would recognise as tenderness if she were human. Finally, her fear and bewilderment when she is trying to escape her attacker are quite palpable.

Glazer himself needs to be considered at awards time for the amazing originality of his directorial vision. Daniel Landin’s cinematography is breathtaking at times, and Mica Levi’s musical score perfectly complements the visuals and the action. Both are also deserving of awards nominations.

* In my original review I referred to the alien as “Laura”, as this is what she is called on the iMDB cast entry. However, I don’t recall that we ever hear her name in the film, so maybe this is just how she appeared in the script.

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I recently watched an interview with the Italian director Dario Argento, in which he commented on the visual style of movies, saying that some films are prose and others are poetry. Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror Under the Skin, I would have to say, falls into the latter camp. This is not a film for the kind of moviegoer who likes everything to be explained and for all loose ends to be tied up. It is, however, a film that contains some quite extraordinary images that resonate in the mind.

Scarlett Johansson gives a dazzling performance as “Laura”, an alien creature who travels around Glasgow luring single men back to a house, where she then traps them in some sort of alien dimension (possibly a food store, as one image suggests). This provides for a series of striking scenes in which we see Laura and her latest victim in a large shiny black space. As Laura divests herself of her clothes and walks backwards, each man walks towards her, entranced, but gradually sinking beneath the black surface whilst Laura remains walking atop it.

Throughout the film we see many events as though through Laura’s eyes. As she drives along the streets of Glasgow in a white van, the city and its inhabitants appear almost as though they are another world to us. Several men are persuaded to climb into Laura’s van as a prelude to their being trapped in her alien dimension. Apparently these men were genuinely unwitting inhabitants of Glasgow, rather than actors, and a series of hidden cameras in the van enabled them and Johannson to be filmed from a variety of angles. When she interacts with these men, Laura smiles and is friendly, but in all other circumstances she is impassive and watchful, like the predator she is.

Various aspects of Under the Skin bring to mind some of the classic science fiction movies, notably 2001 – A Space Odyssey and The Man Who Fell to Earth. The latter movie contains an iconic scene of David Bowie’s alien viewing an entire bank of television sets. By contrast, Under the Skin gives us the sight of Laura sitting on a sofa in a Scottish living room, eating baked beans on toast, whilst watching Tommy Cooper’s spoon-jar routine on a single television. As this might suggest, there are a number of humorous moments, despite the dark and unsettling nature of much of the film. However, whereas The Man Who Fell to Earth used the device of a science fiction alien to say something about the nature of American consumer/corporate society, Under the Skin gives us a glimpse of individual lives in modern Scotland (presumably any city could have been used as the setting, but there is certainly something striking about the contrast between Johannson’s refined English accent and the broad Glaswegian of those she encounters). In particular, there is an emphasis on socially isolated men.

In the second half, as is the case in so many horror films the action moves to the countryside. There is a crisis of sorts and the predator becomes prey. Laura is vulnerable, and at one point she briefly shows what appears to be some human tenderness. This allows us to feel empathy for her, despite everything that has happened previously. One of the things that is never quite explained is the role of a leather-clad motorcyclist, apparently some kind of minder, and who rounds up one of her victims who has managed to escape. But as noted earlier, it is these open questions that help make Under the Skin so thought-provoking, just as is the case with many David Lynch movies.

Cinematographer Daniel Landin must be praised for some exquisitely shot scenes, including the interior alien dimension and some beautifully raw scenes of the Scottish coast and highlands. The unsettling mood elicited by the story and images is also enhanced by a fine musical score from Micachu.

This is a film unlike anything you will have seen in a long time.

Rating: 10/10.

Previewed at the BFI on 13th March.

This review was originally posted on 13th March, and was updated at 19:57 hours on 14th March.