A decade on from Birth, his flawed but interesting follow-up to the rabid, brilliant Sexy Beast, director Jonathan Glazer’s new film, Under The Skin, may already be the most wilfully obtuse, peculiar, essential film of the year.

A chilly, far from faithful adaptation of Michel Faber’s macabre and savage first novel, Glazer ditches the big political themes and overt horror of the book (the ethics and morality of industrial factory farming, the ravages of environmental decay), boiling Under The Skin down to it’s barest essentials – an alien woman hunts the highways and byways of Scotland, enticing unwary men into her battered van, kidnapping and harvesting them for food, aided and abetted by mysterious, leather-clad motorcyclists who clean up after her, watch over her – in favour of a more intimate and abstract portrait of humanity, identity and gender politics, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as his nameless Girl Who Fell To Earth, Glazer’s masterstroke.

Hypnotic and disorientating, the film opens with Johansson’s literal self-creation; abstract imagery resolving into the formation of the eye’s iris, a cacophony of noise and aural gibbering resolving into human speech as her character learns to speak, Mica Levi’s discordant, oppressive score throbbing and disturbing, jangling the nerves, unsettling. Newborn, she enters the world, descending an escalator from the heavens into a Glasgow shopping centre, wanders the streets, anonymous in black wig and chavtastic wardrobe, flirting and tempting men to their doom like a Primark siren, and it’s in these scenes that Under The Skin works best, Glazer deploying hidden cameras to follow Johansson’s exploration of the city, to capture the real reactions of the men (mostly non-professional actors) she seduces before despatching them in stunningly realised sequences of haunting, eerie abstraction. Lather, rinse, repeat; there’s always a fresh victim eager to enter her van (she is Scarlett Johansson after all – who wouldn’t?). Unlike Faber’s source novel, the exact purpose of her mission is never overtly stated (in the book, human flesh is considered a delicacy by her society), it’s merely suggested but increased contact with humanity is slowly changing her, causing her to evolve, to develop, feel compassion, empathy, curiosity, Glazer losing focus as Johansson’s character rebels, strikes off on her own, exploring and experiencing both this alien world and the limits of her own body.

An unearthly goddess in reality, it makes perfect sense for Glazer to cast SodaStream’s best ambassador as his predatory extra-terrestrial abroad; what could be more alien, more perverse, than rendering unrecognisable one of Hollywood’s sexiest, most recognisable actresses and plonking her down in Glasgow, a world equally as alien to most of the film’s probable audience. We see, experience, this mysterious world through her, share her perspective, and Johansson’s still, almost passive, placidity fascinates, exuding an unknowable, ethereal quality.

There’s nothing particularly new or groundbreaking here, Glazer borrows heavily from Kubrick and Matthew Barney to serve up a tale that melds Species and Starman, filtering it through Nic Roeg’s imagination to produce a cool stew that’s a visual and sonic banquet, but it’s refreshing, exciting, to see a film this deliberately opaque, practically daring the audience to stop watching even as it mesmerises. A haunting, beautiful, immersive experience, Under The Skin truly gets under your skin.

 

VERDICT: [rating=5]

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