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Under the Skin

Graham Eley

Modernist filmmaking is alive and well in this brilliant but disturbing new feature from Jonathan Glazer – his first for nine years – which combines mainstream horror’s tension and video art’s ingenuity during a compelling 108 minutes that turns the male gaze on its head and would be as comfortable playing on a loop within a gallery as on a cinema screen.

 

This is a film that gives us an alternative inside track on an outsider view of that mainstay of Western art, human alienation, in a strange deconstruction of cinematic genre conventions, which moves from the allegorical to the real and, perhaps, back again.  Tomas Alfredson’s modern classic ‘Let the Right One In’ did the same thing; seemingly achieving the impossible with an all out ‘out there’ out of place ‘sense of place’, which combines hard edged social realism and filmic fantasy.

 

Glazer sets it in the tough and uncompromising Glasgow metropolis of Lynne Ramsay’s ‘Ratcatcher’ or Andrea Arnold’s ‘Red Road’ where tribal Celtic fans patrol the streets on match day.  Enter Scarlett Johansson, a sexless but strikingly sexy alien with jet black hair and glossy red lipstick and dressed to kill – literally – in designer gear ‘street hooker’ style; a male fantasy construct, who is mysteriously ‘drag queen’ androgynous at one and the same time.

 

She drives around in a clapped out transit van, stalking potential victims; solitary males whose instincts are sometimes razor sharp, refusing to believe the evidence of their own eyes or ears – Johansson speaking with a controlled Joanna Lumley upper lip.  A young man pretends that there is nothing unusual when providing directions and walks ‘awa’.  There is something incredibly realistic about this scene and we are left wondering whether he was an unsuspecting member of the public who happened to be passing by – almost certainly we feel but we cannot be sure.  We can be sure of other Glaswegians going about their business oblivious to Glazer’s secret camera as sci-fi serial killer thriller turns fly-on-the-wall doc.  Seen from a slight remove – a van’s seat perspective and in silence –  they provide a remarkable portrait of urban self-absorption; images that would be worthy of a Turner Prize nod if Glazer had presented them on their own as vid art.

 

Johansson – what a fantastic actress she is – looks on with a mysterious self- absorption of her own, hinting at a greater purpose that brings with it a sense of foreboding but one that always plays second fiddle to a very discernible melancholy emanating from the surroundings.  An American ‘A’ lister in Glasgow or alien imposter, it makes little difference and we never do find out where her character comes from.

 

She invites the victims back to her place, luring them with a seductive knowing half-smile to an urban no-man’s land – giving the supernatural a shocking ghetto vibe – where an oil lake replaces fire in a hell on earth or somewhere and, in a shocking twist on the thriller slasher, the hapless males swim around for eternity with nothing to do beyond looking at each other seemingly decomposing but only to remain whole.

 

In one stunning scene – the film’s opening – there is a smart homage to Kubrick, a creation moment that sees the alien acquiring her human appearance.

 

In another – never to be forgotten – she picks up a Neurofibromatosis sufferer and remains unaware of his ‘disfigurement’.  And without being in any way patronising, it washes away years of appalling arbitrary prejudice in a coming together of two characters living ‘under the skin’ and discovering an unlikely empathy.

 

And cinematographer, Daniel Landin, and the sound department work in a harmonious disharmony doing much to give the film its unique eerie unreal realism.

 

This is a major triumph.
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  • Year: 2013
  • Country: UK
  • Filmmaker: Jonathan Glazer
  • Screenwriter: Walter Campbell
  • Producer: Nick Wechsler and James Wilson
  • Cinematographer: Daniel Landin
  • Editor: Paul Watts
  • Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Michael Moreland, Adam Pearson and Scott Dymond
  • Duration: 108 mins
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