On Monday I treated you to my first blog post in seven months, and now I shall conclude that post with a review of the film that I saw on Sunday, Under the Skin. I managed to scrape the last remaining ticket to the screening, which was one of the most anticipated of the Official Film Competition. I had heard of many positive reviews, but also some astonishingly negative ones. Which side of the critical spectrum would I join? Well…
Under the Skin 13/10/13
Jonathan Glazer’s third feature Under the Skin marks the first time he has used elements from the genre of science-fiction. But it cannot necessarily be described as a science-fiction film. Its central premise – an alien woman preying on males in the Scottish countryside – is about as far as it goes in terms of its relation to the genre. Under the Skin is in fact an elaborately constructed art film, a terrifying feast for the senses that is striking and stunning to watch.
The film opens with a series of startling visual images, accompanied by a haunting sound design, which eventually collude to a close-up of a female eye. It is evident from the opening scenes that the idea of sight and seeing is an important part of the film. We follow an alien in the form of a beautiful young woman called Laura, played by Scarlett Johansson, as she drives around Scotland and stalks wandering males. We follow much of the action from her perspective as she observes – and tries to make sense of – human behaviour. When given the chance, she lures men back to her house, where they meet an untimely – and visually remarkable – end. Over time, however, Laura begins to doubt her role, and attempts to become more human – with difficult consequences.
It’s fairly evident from the trailer that the plot is not the main focus of the film. Glazer gives us both naturalistic scenes, which were shot with hidden cameras to observe Laura’s journey through Scotland, and more brooding, dark, frightening atmospheres as she captures and deals with her prey. Put simply, the cinematography is utterly outstanding. From its opening to its closing moments, Under the Skin is an aesthetic marvel, a film so beautifully shot that it almost distracts from the dark nature of the subject matter. It also sounds brilliant. The soundtrack is the first thing you notice, a deeply unsettling blend of alien noises and Mica Levi’s terrific score, her first for a feature film. Many key scenes play without diegetic sound, only adding to the alien nature of what is happening on screen.
But the film does not just excel on a technical level. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is, quite frankly, one of the best in her career. Having been confined to supporting roles in the last few years, here she takes centre stage, dominating the film. Her glazed look and unnatural movements when walking on the streets of Glasgow are very convincing. Yet the long periods of the film where she considers her identity are particularly striking, with mirrors becoming a visual motif in the latter half of the film – a kind of window onto her soul.
Virtually every scene has remained in my memory long after leaving the cinema. I would love to describe them, but I fear giving things away for those who may plan to see the film. All I will say is this – Under the Skin is by far the best film I’ve seen at the London Film Festival – and the standard this year has been very high. At the start of the end credits, I gazed at the screen in open-mouthed wonder, dumbly clapping my hands as the director ascended the stage for a Q+A. It is visually and aurally audacious, drawing you in under its hypnotic power. It is a monumental triumph for Scarlett Johansson, for British filmmaking and for arthouse cinema in general.