Under the Skin (UK 2013)

Alien being

Alien being

On the basis of his first two features, Sexy Beast (UK-Sp, 2000) and Birth (UK-US-Germany, 2004), there’s no doubting director Jonathan Glazer’s talent and it’s disappointing that it’s taken nine years for his third feature; but it was worth the wait. Based on Michel Faber’s unsettling novel of the same name (2000) the film follows an alien’s exploration of Scotland. Although I’ve tagged the film SF it eschews the iconography of the genre with its distinctly art house sensibility. Mark Kermode links the film to Nic Roeg’s work, particularly The Man Who Fell to Earth (UK, 1976) and the opening sequence references 2001: A Space Odyssey (US-UK 1968). However the images in the sequence, that recalls space ships docking in Kubrick’s film, consists entirely of light and transpires to be the lens that are creating Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien’s eyes. It’s a beautiful abstract image followed by an extreme close up of an eye; itself extremely beautiful.

This abstractness runs through the film, her lair is more art installation, or  video art, than SF, but it is counterbalanced by the literal realism of the alien picking up men off Glasgow streets. This was done, in the most part, candidly. Whilst I realised the scenes had the quality of being improvised but I concluded that they were just very well done as the cameras didn’t seem to be concealed. However, it transpires that Glazer used up to eight hidden cameras. Not all the men gave their permission to be used in the film; I guess it’s not everyday that a Hollywood star tries to pick you up.

The casting of Johansson is crucial as, to coin a negative stereotype of Glasgow, it’s hard to imagine someone like her being more out of place than the rough streets of the city. I’m not  sure that’s fair on Glasgow but it does work dramatically. Although Johannson’s bewigged and fake-fur dressed, there’s no disguising her sensuous lips and, entirely appropriately, she drives a white van.

Hard SF deals with ‘what it means to be human’ and the alien is therefore characterised as an ‘other’ (to human) as we can’t truly conceive of the alien. However, Glazer’s film has come closest, I think, to conceive of what an alien sensibility might be like in a disturbing scene on a beach.

Mica Levi’s music is brilliantly ‘other-worldly’, its hypnotic repetition of microtones perfectly reinforces the otherness of the mise en scène. As noted earlier, placing Johansson ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in Glasgow is other-worldly in itself but we are also invited to see the mundanity of everyday life, walking in the street, shopping etc., from the alien’s perspective. It ‘makes strange’ our reality and it didn’t look pretty. Obviously shooting in a wet Scottish winter loads the dice in this but, nevertheless, street scenes have never seemed as uncanny. However, the focus here is on, stereotypically, working class people and I’d have felt easier in accepting the film’s representation if it hadn’t been so classed based.

The narrative does develop slowly and I won’t spoil. However, true to its art house provenance, the film doesn’t explain everything. In many ways it’s an open text and I’m not sure that knowledge of the original novel is helpful, it might actually get in the way of reading the film. Casting a Hollywood star is one way of getting finance and, hopefully, an audience, but it works also entirely to this film’s purpose. Johansson is naked in a few scenes of the film and in one of them, where she examines, what is to her, her alien body I was reminded of the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (France-Italy, 1963) where Brigitte Bardot’s body is similarly scrutinised (though there by a man). Johansson is examining her own body and maybe, in doing so, is reclaiming it from the male gaze.  Peter Bradshaw described the film as ‘very erotic, very scary’; I’m not sure about the eroticism. The alien’s seduction, she is a femme fatale, is hypnotic and matter of fact; it doesn’t know what it’s like to be sexy. Later in the film she finds out and this leads to a turning point.

Daniel Landin’s cinematography superbly captures the bleakness of the film’s world. Glazer combines the elements of the film brilliantly and this is will be one of my films of the year. Hopefully we don’t have to wait a decade for Glazer’s next outing.

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4 comments

  1. Kathleen

    I think you should have mentioned the beautiful shots of amazing Scottish landscapes in Argyll, Glencoe and elsewhere, rather than just focusing on Glasgow being “rough”. Although cold and wild, the outdoor scenes lend a deep beauty and atmosphere to the final sequences. Think of the swaying trees as she sleeps. And so what if characters happen to be working class? It’s not that the film is “class based” IMO. It’s simply that these are the type of people who you’ll find about town on a rainy night. In fact, these guys often seem vulnerable, being led by instincts that prove potentially dangerous. For instance, the man she meets at the bus stop is thoughtful and kind, not a hardened stereotype. There is a lot more here than just a vision of Scotland or Glasgow as depressing counterpoint to her alien beauty. And FYI, there are plenty of good looking women in the city who aren’t aliens.

    • nicklacey

      You’re right to point out the gloomy beauty of the countryside; the ‘gloom’ being a result of the weather. I’m not sure that middle class people don’t go out in the rain in Glasgow on a night but it wasn’t just the ‘pick ups’ that were represented as working class. The day time shots too, seemed to me, to be drawing on (Glaswegian?) working class stereotypes. I certainly didn’t mean to imply working class equated to ‘being hardened’ and that there aren’t good looking women in Glasgow. My point about Johansson ‘being out of place’ wasn’t about of her looks but due to her glamorous star persona.

      • musingfrommanchester

        I’m just not really sure what the stereotypes are that you’re referring to? Maybe I’m biased, to me it just looked like home! Haha. Anyway, I also loved this movie. Genuinely unique.

  2. nicklacey

    Glasgow, and Glaswegians, are often stereotyped as hard drinking, macho and rough. The sequences of the alien driving through the city, or walking through the shopping mall, seemed to me to focus on people who would fit that stereotype. The purpose of these sequences was for us to see Glasgow through the alien’s eyes. Her watching Tommy Cooper on TV was another example of this ‘making strange’, which worked because his stagecraft was bonkers. However I didn’t see any focus on stereotypically middle class people. For me Glazer’s camera seemed to be suggesting that the denizens of Glasgow looked Other because they weren’t middle class; I doubt very much if that was his intention.

    This, of course, could be a complete misreading and when I see the film again I’ll probably notice the bourgeoisie. The class issue didn’t detract much from the film for me as I think it is quite brilliant.

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