Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin sits somewhere between profound and pointless, inspiring and infuriating.
It’s been a while since I saw a film as polarising as Under the Skin, the latest effort from Sexy Beast director, Jonathan Glazer. Watching the film, I took a mental note of the particular emotions I was feeling at any one point. And here they are: confused, bored, touched, shocked, annoyed, pissed off, amused, in wonder, out of wonder, ambivalent. That a single film can accrue this many feelings in an hour and 40 minutes is testament to both its incoherence and its strange brilliance.
Upon leaving the cinema I told myself that I truly hated Under the Skin. Now I’ve let it sink in, I’m having second thoughts
Indeed, on leaving the cinema I told myself that I truly hated Under the Skin, that it was a veritable piece of shit, one I wouldn’t devote much further time or attention to. Now I’ve let it sink in and my annoyance has (to an extent) dispelled, I think I’m having second thoughts. After all, any film that can piss me off as much as Under the Skin deserves some credit – some affection, even. It’s like that mean girl you can’t help but like. Except here the hate comes through a little firmer, which is why I’m having such a hard time deciphering my feelings for the picture. It seems that when it comes to this film – and like the film itself – I’m really quite strange.
To attempt to describe the plot of Under the Skin is to try and rhyme a word with orange, so let’s just say it involves Scarlett Johansson, a transit van, Scotland and numerous male Scots succumbing to the allurement of Johansson’s (alien?) being. There’s also a mysterious biker; lots of footage of ordinary, real-life people; a man with extensive facial disfigurement; and a hilarious Hibernian fan who’s only too happy to hang the scarf of his beloved team out of said transit van’s window.
But anyone looking for a straight-up review should end their reading here, because Under the Skin is so frustrating, so oblique, that one would be better served just going to watch the damn thing, something I couldn’t have imagined myself saying three hours ago. As with most films, there are things to admire and things to question, it’s just that in this particular film the lines are blurred so frequently that it becomes almost a game, a question-asking exercise within your own mind: Is Glazer being serious? What is he trying to say? Is he trying to say anything? Is he taking the fucking piss?
Tonally this film is all over the place. It’s both sombre and silly. Then, though, there’s the stuff that is certifiably brilliant
I’m still no closer to any fixed answers, and that alone has warmed me to this cold, cold film. Even if Glazer is having us on, he’s doing a good job of doing so. Consider a scene involving Johansson and a man with neurofibromatosis (Scott Dymond). It is at once touching and tender, the high point of the film, a scene which challenges the perceptions of beauty that run stark throughout. Here Glazer and his cast deliver something meaningful, something compassionate and in-touch with human nature. Yet, earlier, we were treated to a stretch of film that incorporated so many clichés of 90s clubbing culture (no, really) that it became almost impossible to take the film seriously.
If these were intended as a joke, then so be it, but the fact remains that both of these scenes – the sombre and the silly – appear in the same film, with no clear indication of whether we should discern one from the other. Tonally this film is all over the place. Then, though, there’s the stuff that is certifiably brilliant: The building, suspense-ridden score by Mica Levi; Scarlett Johansson, who, after this and Her, is back on form after too long spent in Marvel’s tepid supernova; the technical brilliance of shots that show the victims descending into an oil-like substance, walking down into it like some sort of reverse evolutionary diagram. This is all great stuff.
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But hold on, there’s a flip side: that Hibernian fan – funny though he is – who threatens to turn the film into something approaching farce; an Alan Partridge-esque character who asks Johansson if she’s going for a “country ramble”; the lingering silences which are too often mistaken for profundity; the sheer incoherent level the film operates on. This is all not so great – far from it, in fact.
Under the Skin’s curse is you want to love or hate it, want some solid camp to base yourself in
Yet still I sit and type and mull and think about this film. Still I veer between hate and something approaching love. Still I hate myself for nearly loving it, especially after last night, when I so vehemently disregarded it as a navel-gazing, chin-stroking anathema. This is Under the Skin’s curse: you want to either love or hate it, want some solid camp to base yourself in. You want it to be heaven or hell; turns out it’s purgatory.
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All images: A24 Films