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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.

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

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.