Out of this world: Scarlett Johannson at the premier of Under the Skin at the Venice Film Festival 2013. (Photo: Getty)
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Alien landscape: Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer

Scarlett Johansson stars as the otherworldly, predatory protagonist in this unsettling sci-fi thriller.

Under the Skin (15)
Jonathan Glazer

The British director Jonathan Glazer has made only three films in 14 years but when they’re this good, you don’t mind waiting. Unexpected visitors are at the heart of each. His 2000 debut, Sexy Beast, starred Ray Winstone as an ex-gangster living high on the hog (and looking like one) on the Costa del Smug, until an old associate, barking in both senses of the word, disrupts the calm forever. The interloper in Glazer’s second film, Birth, is a ten-year-old boy who walks into the life of a widow (Nicole Kidman), claiming to be the reincarnation of her late husband. Both times, the visitor was on the margins of the movie, bringing anarchy to its still centre, but in Under the Skin, that figure provides our sole point of view. Whether the nameless protagonist, played by Scarlett Johansson, is from another world or dimension is left ambiguous (it was not in the Michel Faber novel on which the script is based). She regards the human race through curious, dispassionate eyes. Soon we are doing likewise.

With the main character established in the abstract prologue as an alien presence, everything that follows assumes a strangeness that never has to be insisted on. Whether shopping for clothes, applying a slash of lipstick or riding a bus, whatever she does becomes effortlessly peculiar. There is another layer of oddness in seeing Scarlett Johansson driving a transit van around Glasgow. Why Glasgow? Well, you know how it is. You have your heart set on a villa in Kastellorizo and you find yourself staying above a Burger King in Kos. Why should things work out any differently for an alien intelligence?

Her cover story for the hitchhikers she picks up is that she is transporting some furniture for her aunt, but this is manifestly not the story of an extraterrestrial driving a tallboy to East Kilbride. Her objective is to collect men. She entices her prey back to her squat where she saunters ahead of him, disrobing as she goes. He follows her lead, shedding his clothes to the seductive sound of a snake-charmer’s lament, until he sinks silently into the molasses-like floor. Once he has been submerged, she strolls back over the surface and collects the discarded garments like a bored parent tidying up after a child. These scenes have a serene plainness, as if they were a natural exchange on the intergalactic food-chain. The annihilation is terrifying, without the alien seeming culpable or even cruel.

A pivotal encounter in which she picks up a facially disfigured man (Adam Pearson) twists that dynamic in a sophisticated fashion. In a conventional film, he would be the monster, she the victim. Knowing that he is her quarry, we fear instead for him. But her acceptance of his appearance complicates the scene further. Both alien and monster are rendered as human, with any fear set aside. It’s at such moments that the film reveals itself to be an anthropological study – a controlled celebration of human life masquerading as a science-fiction thriller.

In the second half, the alien goes rogue; the action switches from nightclubs and shopping centres to the mist-tangled Highlands. She has sex. She eats gateau. Most shockingly, she begins to enjoy the music of Deacon Blue.

The catalyst might be the moment when she studies her reflection in a mirror but in a film this oblique it’s anyone’s guess. If later parts of Under the Skin feel less daring, perhaps it is because it conforms to a familiar shape: the fish-out-of-water story in which an exotic creature grapples with our oddball ways. What keeps the tone steady is Glazer’s single-minded direction and Johansson’s subtle performance (some of which involves her improvising with Glaswegians who have no idea they are being filmed). In Birth, Kidman was called on to transmit a cataclysmic change of heart in one wordless close-up. Johansson’s task is to do the opposite: to convey meaning through blankness. I’m not sure how she does it, any more than I can say how Mica Levi’s electronic score evolves from the shrill to the aggressively moving without any apparent shift in texture. But Under the Skin gets under the skin. It is an experience that has as much to do with hypnosis as with cinema.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era