Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Jessica Mance
The centerpiece of this year’s Official Competition, Under The Skin arrives at the London Film Festival having already wowed and enraged audiences in Venice. Praised for its visually arresting imagery and slated for its lack of coherent narrative, Under The Skin is certainly very different to director Jonathan Glazer’s previous work. Hypnotically juxtaposing startling imagery with a mixed string and synth score that persistently sends shivers down your spine, it’s a film that, much like its main character, draws you in and refuses to let go.
Adapting his central idea from Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, Glazer’s film is driven less by story and more by examination. At its centre is Scarlett Johansson’s alien being who travels around Glasgow and the surrounding highlands, preying on lonely men and drawing them towards a terrifying, inescapable fate. Whereas Faber’s source material explored the reasoning behind the central character’s actions, Glazer strips away the narrative to more interestingly observe how alien eyes might comprehend our world.
Filmed on location, largely using a combination of intricate hidden camera techniques, Glazer crafts a film that views our own species with a chilling honesty. He’s helped, of course, by an exceptional performance from his lead actress. Immediately striking with her short dark hair & red lipstick, Johansson is the mysterious femme fatale that carries the film. It’s a testament to her extraordinary talent that we are able to so quickly build such strong emotions, both positive & negative, towards her character. Her irresistible eyes that remain devoid of emotion as she lures men to their doom and her otherworldly mannerisms creating an alien character that is both fascinating and terrifying to watch.
From the disorientating opening, to the startling finale, Under The Skin is a film that plies you with questions about loneliness, humankind and morality without always offering answers. The men Johansson preys on aren’t particularly likeable, but they’re certainly not deserving of such a grizzly fate; we only once actually see what happens to those who become lost in the void, but thanks to Glazer’s consistently shocking and memorable use of imagery, once is enough.
Pitching his film’s first half as an honest observation of human interaction and alien reaction, Glazer eventually makes Johansson his sole focus, with a moment of empathy paving the way for an enticing character study. His slight shift in tone is no less enthralling than the first half and the film builds gradually, Mica Levi’s haunting score pushing you closer & closer to the edge of your seat.
Bravely deciding to strip away the narrative that drove Faber’s original novel, Glazer has created a creepy and intimate piece of cinema that will ask a lot of questions, but offer only a few answers. When the credits rolled in London, Under The Skin was met with a stunned silence… but as the lights went up the auditorium erupted with applause, a haunted audience enthralled by this mind-bending masterpiece.