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Under the Skin: Film Review

1:33 AM PDT 9/12/2013 by Todd McCarthy

The Bottom Line

A visually and aurally striking conundrum.

Venue

Telluride, Venice film festivals

Cast

Scarlett Johansson

Director

Jonathan Glazer

Scarlett Johansson stars in director Jonathan Glazer's adaptation of Michel Faber's psychosexual novel about an alien woman who falls to Earth in Scotland.

After waiting 13 years since Sexy Beast and nine years since Birth, Jonathan Glazer's striking two previous features, it's no pleasure feeling the sense of anticipation and excitement steadily and surely slipping away throughout Under the Skin, in which the filmmaker makes a left turn into a very dark dead-end alley. Eliminating the meat, among many other things, from Michel Faber's noted and twisted 2000 novel, the legendary music video director uses the predatory pursuits of a mysterious young woman to explore disturbingly subterranean male-female issues -- or perhaps just male-female alien issues -- with results more pictorially arresting than intellectually coherent.

Viewers willing to embrace a purely visual experience without dramatic, emotional or psychological substance will comprise an ardent cheering section, but the film provides too little for even relatively adventurous specialized audiences to latch on to, spelling a very limited commercial life.

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For a while, even up to about an hour in, the sheer strangeness and virtuosity of this quiet, sinister work are enough to sustain curiosity. The ambiguous and provocative early images, of a white light, lenses and eyes, suggest the construction of a way of seeing. Subsequent glimpses are of a speeding motorcycle, a body being picked up at night, then, in a white room, a nude woman undressing that body and putting on her clothes as if to assume her life, all meant to create mystery and apprehension.

Plausibly enough, the first thing this woman who fell to Earth does upon arrival is to ask directions. Driving an ungainly white van, she cruises around Glasgow, Scotland, and environs, stopping only to pleasantly speak to men in a nice middle-of-the-road London accent (the van scenes were shot with built-in candid cameras of which the people encountered were unaware). The woman is played by Scarlett Johansson, mind you, but beneath the unattractive mop of dark hair and ordinary outfit, this is not the hottie familiar to anyone who sees magazine covers in supermarkets, but seemingly an ordinary young lady. Unless you let her give you a lift. Those who do suddenly find themselves nude and following her as she walks across an inky mass into which the men sink and disappear.

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Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the film is set on a beach; the woman watches from a distance as a man unaccountably tries to swim out into very rough surf, as all the while a baby one assumes belongs to the man wails near the pounding surf. The so-called alien then clobbers another man who's tried to save the swimmer as the waves pound and the baby cries, the point presumably being the woman's complete lack of anything resembling human empathy.

The next man the woman picks up physically transforms a bit in the black liquid, while she changes her attitude slightly when the next fellow she meets closely resembles the Elephant Man. But if everything up to this point has merely been obscure but arguably scrutable, subsequent events see Glazer going places where few will be able to follow. In her next interactions, the woman seems to change and, ultimately, to make herself passive and thus vulnerable, in a human way. This may not be a good thing for her and, while the film does seem to hover over the subjects of the nature of interchange between the sexes, the potential for transformation and the sharing of traits between species, its approach to the subject is so shadowy and imprecise, and its reduction of themes raised in the novel so extensive, as to strip it of much tangible meaning at all.

As has been clear throughout his career, Glazer is a very accomplished image maker. This may not be enough to float the film, but the director's explorations with cinematographer Daniel Landin are daring and always intriguing to watch. The mood is quiet and strong, pregnant with threat, not of horror film-like violence but of unexpected images and psychosexual freakiness. An equally important element here is the score by Mica Levi (aka pop band member Micachu), an eerie, anxiety-provoking electronic work that is extremely accomplished in its own right.

Johansson demonstrated early in her career, specifically in Girl With a Pearl Earring 10 years ago, that she was fully capable of holding the screen by herself and being fascinating while doing very little, and she succeeds admirably at it again here. She's been made to look as plain and ordinary as she ever has been onscreen. If the director had provided more for the audience to go on -- a sense of what drives her to the point of transformation, even transfiguration -- reactions to her, and to the film, could have been quite different and significantly stronger.

Production: Nick Wechsler Productions, JW Films
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenwriters: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber
Producers: James Wilson, Nick Wechsler
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Reno Antoniades, Walter Campbell, Claudia Bluemhuber, Ian Hutchinson, Florian Dargel
Director of photography: Daniel Landin
Production designer: Chris Oddy
Costume designer: Steven Noble
Editor: Paul Watts
Music: Mica Levi

No rating, 107 minutes