UNDER THE SKIN (2013) – FILM REVIEW – PAUL LAIGHT
**Contains plot + interpretative spoilers**
UNIQUE filmmaking comes along every so often into the Multiplexes. This is cinematic Art of the highest quality, a sheer visual treat and an unnerving and very memorable experience.
NAKED and nameless at the start Scarlett’s character is a literal void or blank; her birth begins with an eye filling the screen backed by ambient, eerie and almost silent noise. We then find her — against a stark white background — removing the clothes of a seemingly dead woman as she appears to steal her identity.
DEATH hangs over the film she is dropped at a grim rotting house located somewhere in Scotland and provided with a white van with which to seduce and kill unsuspecting men. Her only contact here is a male “handler” or “pimp” on a motorcycle who cleans and collects her victims after she has led them to their demise.
EROTICISM initially drives the film as an often naked Scarlett becomes the focus of our gaze. But her murderous actions render all sexual feelings redundant as we become accomplices to her crimes.
RELATIONSHIPS between Scarlett and the men is at the heart of the narrative. She connects with them coldly relying on her looks to hook them in then ends their lives and seemingly passes them onto her handler.
TORMENTED by her actions Scarlett becomes trapped by her mission. The story hinges on how the character becomes affected by her actions. She slowly connects with her prey and ultimately becomes the hunted having gone absent without leave.
HORROR arrives not from shock tactics but the slow build-up of tension as events occur at a glacial pace. The scene on the beach is one of the most horrific I have seen at the cinema in recent years. Hack cuts and slashing music so prevalent in modern horror is eschewed in favour of strangeness, visual imagination and intense performances.
EERIE and unnerving the score is atmospheric while the dialogue is stripped naked and bare. Nothing is forced. The film is both highly stylised but seems natural simultaneously. You only have to look at Glazer’s work on music videos and adverts to know nothing is by accident.
SCARLETT Johansson is incredible under fantastic direction from Jonathan Glazer. My understanding is many of the scenes were improvised with untrained actors supporting her. She uses her sexuality to great impact but also shows an intensity perhaps not seen in her other performances.
KILLING and murder is shown in an incredibly imaginative way; shot in a dark room where she strips and leads the men to a weird liquid where they drown. This is very surreal and symbolic. What this symbolises is down to the audience to decide. Like the rest of the film the makers deny us easy explanations refusing to spoon-feed meaning and reason into our Hollywood factory-fattened guts.
INTROSPECTIVE and moody the film really moved me. Scarlett’s character is a tragic figure who gains our eventual sympathy from being used, sexualised and pursued by men. She doesn’t want to be a murderer and desires herself humanity and attempts escape but finds she is unable to get away from an oppressive, pervasive patriarchy. This is reflected by a stunning ending that will haunt me for some time.
NOT quite a non-narrative film this is a surreal treat which while linear owes much to the work of David Lynch and Luis Bunuel. Based on Michael Faber’s novel I understand the lead character is an alien killing men for their flesh but this is totally left out of the movie version.
I am happy that a British independent film got a proper release. I would hazard a guess Jonathan Glazer’s poetic, visceral and disturbing mood poem has found distribution amongst the popcorn strewn, coke-guzzling reaches of the Odeons and Vues due to the impressive presence of bona fide movie star and sex symbol Scarlett Johansson.
Overall, I wasn’t sure about Under The Skin (2013) after I had seen it. But like all great art it stayed with me and I could not get it out of my mind. And I still can’t. It’s not a super-hero film. It’s not a date movie. It’s not a 3-D CGI sick-fest. It’s pure, pulsing, hypnotic cinema of the highest quality that – IN MY OPINION – is about the exploitation of foreign sex workers brought to this country without hope, humanity or identity.