By Sartaj Singh
When the last frame of Jonathan Glazer`s latest film- Under the Skin finished, I was struck by two things. The first, was how spellbinding the picture was, in every sense of the phrase. I felt as though, I was slowly disengaging from an experience which had shocked me to the core.
This was to such an extent, that my eyes had to adjust to the house lights, and I had to slowly succumb to reality again. The second, which had dawned upon me soon after, was a quote from Roger Ebert, which goes as follows: “If a movie is really working, you forget for two hours your Social Security number and where your car is parked. You are having a vicarious experience.”
Under the Skin is one of the purest examples of what cinema does best. For a couple of hours, it allows you to see the world through a unique point of view, and almost live out that experience. While staunch traditionalists and some audiences members will complain that the film does not have a narrative flow. I would contend that the film has many interesting layers, that one can interpret, put together and ultimately form a cohesive experience.
One of these layers is the whole framework of the film, in an interview with Adam Kempenaar (of Filmspotting fame) The director, Jonathan Glazer, said that, what had interested him most about the original novel by Michael Faber, was the point of view of the alien character. To this end, the film is about her small time on Earth. This is in addition to some other themes, in the picture.
One such theme is about image, not only from the vantage point of how Scarlett`s character presents herself to the world, but also how Glazer presents the actress to us, by playing with her usual image. These two ideas work greatly in unison, the first showcasing the alien with a careful balance of female and male traits.
The former being presented in what she wears, as we see Johansen`s character go shopping, picking a dark brown fluffy coat and lipsticks. The latter is shown in the vehicle, the alien chooses to drive. This is a massive truck and her behaviour is very predatory, methods of which, that are usually ascribed to males.
Despite how much we see of Scarlett Johansson’s character, including a scene where she is looking at her naked body in a mirror, while a prism of light shines through her. I feel as though Glazer ultimately shows that objectification is an empty hollow thing, using Johansson as a sketch. Some of her roles in the past, have had the audience perceive her this way.
Despite quite a bit of nudity, it proves to be, not very tantalising at all. This is through some of the role reversal as well as how Glazer shoots Johansson. One remarkable example being when he focuses on a close up of her face, which then cuts to her eyes and we see nothing, no spark or life behind them.
There is also a theme of voyeurism, that permeates throughout the picture. On the one hand, we are watching the alien`s point of view. In addition to this, we are seeing the world from her perspective, which ultimately shows us a view of ourselves. This is best showcased in a montage of sorts, where we see images, scenes of random people going about their everyday lives.
This ends with the alien`s face, coming into frame, appearing slightly out of focus, and settling in the middle of the frame. This almost gives the impression that we are perceiving her memories and recollections. Ultimately the interplay of these two ideas, is perfectly encapsulated in this one scene.
Jonathan Glazer, elsewhere in his direction, seamlessly creates the most atmospheric film of the year, which greatly blurs the line between reality and dreaming. His use of non actors in the majority of the picture, give the film this great tactile feel that complements the mood and style. His trademark, as with his previous film Birth, is in crafting these great, finely composed shots. They linger, almost in a Kubrickian way, it gives the viewer the feeling that the camera, is quite infinite in its scope.
The lightning was very impressive too, there are a lot of black on black scenes. However you could almost swear that you are perceiving a veil of red in an almost subliminal way, in these moments. His work was most seductive in the first half of the picture, which incorporated lighting from the natural environments.
This is shown in the scene where Scarlet`s character is asking for directions and we see her half of her face covered in amber, reflected from a nearby traffic light. What is even more impressive, is a similar scene we get later on. The key difference is that the sun shines in the shot, giving this very natural quality and one of the film’s few warm moments.
Finally, Glazer directs the picture in a unique way, that makes the film not seem like a science fiction movie. This comes from the aforementioned style. It also comes from showing such drab environments where you can really feel the dirt, bleakness and coldness of those areas.
In fact, the last scene where we see Scarlett`s alien visage, despite its passing resemblance to the female terminator model in Terminator 3. It looked more like a cyber infused version of an Edmund Munch painting, as opposed to the usual Hollywood alien reveal.
The picture, is greatly helped by the score, which was provided by Mica Levi. In its use throughout the film, it gives of the impression that we are in the landscape of the alien`s mind. The sound scape being a mixture between quite mechanical, dizzying and primal. The primal aspect is emphasised with a great use of drums, that have this deep, subconscious effect on the viewer, during the seduction scenes.
Scarlett Johansson anchors the entire film, with her performance. One of the most fascinating parts of it, was how multi-faceted it was. On one level we see her as the happy, go lucky woman with a British accent. She is polite, fun and caring, in these scenes, when she is with men. However outside those early scenes, she seems so cold and calculated, in her precision and purpose.
Seeing these two elements come together in the seduction scenes is very intriguing. This is because, Johansson is playing with both levels of these established façades, while simultaneously putting on an erotic front.
Johansson also adds other elements to her performance, which are best illustrated in the second half of the picture. She plays up her curiosity, about her own image and displays a great deal of vulnerability. Johansson`s portrait of a being, who is isolated in a strange place and comes to learn, what it means to be human, is one of the best performances of the year, and perhaps the actress`s personal best.
Despite the short amount of time, that has elapsed in my viewing of the film, I can already tell that, it is going to stay with me. The thirst of wanting to see it again, is close to, the feeling of wishing to experience a peculiar dream again, with all its enigmas and peculiarities intact.