Under the Skin (2014)

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For his third feature film, his first in ten years, Jonathan Glazer has delivered a purely cinematic work of such surprising power and audacity that I had to take a long walk afterwards in order to let it all sink in and settle. I have so many thoughts about this film, so many observations, questions and ideas it’s difficult to find a place to start. So I’ll start in summation: Under the Skin is an incredible movie. Like a waking nightmare it leaves you with both a lingering sense of unease and horrific relief. It is a singular vision that goes exactly where it’s title promises.

I’ve long been a fan of Glazer. Both Sexy Beast and Birth are impressive expressions of a daring voice pushing the envelope in different directions. One a flashy exercise in surreal pulp the other a Kubrickan display of sustained emotion on both an operatic and intimate level. Under the Skin, however, is the film he has been working towards his entire career, delivering on the promise of his striking work in music videos and advertising. It’s so daring in it’s technique and approach that audiences will either embrace or dismiss it’s alienating ambience. Glazer takes liberties with narrative and structure and successfully forces you to look at the world through a foreign pair of eyes. Blazingly original in it’s depiction of alien technology and anatomy, it’s a film painted with grand oblique strokes. What better way to depict that which we will never understand? That which we cannot compare? Glazer finds the answer by presenting us with imagery we have never seen before. The creation of an iris, naked men sinking into black liquid, skin as a costume, dimensionless voids, all scored to a droning soundtrack of sharp edges – it is an absolute vision, darkly hypnotic and seductive.

The casting of Scarlett Johansson as the film’s alien heroine is a master stroke and there is something perfect about her star power combined with this project. This is Johansson like we have never seen her before. With a black bob, prowling the Scottish streets in a white van, the glamour is stripped back and the beauty made raw, her silhouette is totally recontextualised. She is a predator, fierce yet delicate, welcoming yet threatening. She is a sexual object in the eyes of the men peering into her van but a venus fly trap to us, the audience who are savvy to her dark intent. What we witness here in Under the Skin is an actress completely reclaiming her image. She is taking control of her body and claiming ownership of her talents.

As an actress who is constantly paraded in front of us a sex icon, it’s as if her sexiness and qualities – her soft curves and sultry voice, have become a selling tool, a mere product. It’s a shame that this movie will only appeal to many as “the film in which Scarlett Johansson takes her clothes off” but there is indeed something extremely overwhelming and beautiful about the moments in which she bares all for the camera. It’s something that has been nothing but a figment in many imaginations until now. Some may argue, those who only see Johansson as a pretty specimen of the female form, that keeping herself covered up on-screen only makes her more beautiful. Countless films and photoshoots in which she has appeared tease her voluptuous figure but never reveal it, it is part of her allure. That which is unattainable and mysterious. To finally reveal it all on screen is a brave choice on Johansson’s part, a potentially dangerous one but the gamble pays off. She took the risk for the right project and for the right director.

Glazer does not sexualise her in any degrading way, he simply presents her faithfully and her nudity is not gratuitous or exclusive. Her male co-stars bare just as much, if not more flesh. As opposed to delivering mere titillation, when she removes her clothes it feels like shackles have been removed, a weight is lifted and there is a rebirth happening in front of us. It is a bold statement of intent on Johansson’s part, as if she is saying “here you go, look at it, it’s mine, now let’s move on”. With this film and last year’s Her and Don Jon, she has been assuring control over her image and using her sex appeal as a weapon, a trojan horse which unleashes the blossoming of a truly great actress. She’s not simply “the world’s sexiest woman” anymore, she means buisness. As a result her mystique and appeal is not diluted, but intensified. I’m not suggesting that actresses need to take their clothes off to be taken seriously by any means, but in this case, it’s a particularly revelatory and admirable artistic choice, one which makes the film all the more authentic. As a male film-goer who has been totally infatuated with Scarlett Johansson’s beauty for a long time (I would argue she is the most beautiful actress who has ever lived) I could easily be accused of putting way more importance on this element of the film than is perhaps necessary but I can’t deny the intense effect it had on me. It was not a feeling or arousal or attraction but a deep admiration for a daring artistic choice. Her work in this film is exceptional and fearless and we should all keep a very close eye on her in the years to come as I feel like there is no territory she dare not explore. It’s a liberating and exciting place for an actor to be.

Under the Skin is a film which blurs the line between reality and genre unlike anything I have ever seen before. Much has already been written about the choice to have Johansson drive around in a van kitted out with secret cameras and pick up genuine, unsuspecting Scottish bystanders who would then be seamlessly weaved into the film’s tapestry, if they permitted it. But beyond that, Glazer’s choice to place this story and this actress where he does is quite remarkable. It was absolutely bizarre for me to see so many familiar British shops and brands light up the backgrounds in shopping centres while Johansson floated amidst them. This is not a tourists eye view of the UK (Scotland more specifically, but the two look the same). This film is populated by faces and voices that saturate my every day life and the mundane grey skies, damp fields and rolling green hillsides are images I take for granted by this point. I rarely see them depicted on screen beyond the kitchen sink realism of Ken Loach and they’re often something I go to the movies to escape from rather than escape to. But seeing them through Glazer’s lens and moving beneath Johansson’s feet hit incredibly close to home for me. It’s quite profound to see something so familiar suddenly become unfamiliar. It’s the power of movies, to transcend, transport and force you to re-evaluate. Under the Skin showed me things I see every day and made them fantastic and sublime. I’ve never wanted to escape into my own home town until now. It’s was an eye-opening experience and one I feel slightly changed and reinvigorated by.

This is the best film I have seen in a long time and easily one of the most powerful cinematic experiences I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying. Even after just one viewing I’m comfortable with declaring it as one of the few masterpieces I’ve seen created in my lifetime. Like, say, There Will Be Blood, it’s a film that I feel has already had it’s place cemented in film history to be discussed for years to come. It’s going to take a lot for another film to top this in 2014 for me. Jonathan Glazer has made one hell of a movie that embraces and exploits the infinite possibilities of the medium itself. Intoxicating as it is horrific but never anything less than extraordinary. A truly astonishing achievement.

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