Review: Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (2014)

   Jonathan Glazer's decade-in-the-making sci-fi Under the Skin is enigmatic and sublime, multifaceted and unnerving. In a performance of startling nearly-silent power, Scarlett Johansson stalks the haunting grey-blacks of Glaswegian back roads in a transit van, using her powers of seduction to ensnare unassuming men. There she reveals her true form - an alien succubus, drowning humans in bone-melting otherworldly goo.

Glazer's formal abilities are unmatched; his camera has an almost anthropological gaze into the careworn faces of humanity. Perhaps his greatest achievement in a knock-out mood piece like this one is his knack for the uncanny. He reflects ordinary, rainswept Glasgow and its inhabitants through a funhouse mirror; everything is mildly skewed. In the Freudian sense, the uncanny is best described as the familiar rendered strange; a sort of duplicate which is disturbing in its essential difference from the real thing. If this is so, than Glazer evokes it on any number of levels; even Johansson's casting is jarring. Her Hollywood glamour exchanged for council estate fashions and a homely dark haircut, she talks to real strangers on the streets of Glasgow, adopting a cinema verite approach for many of the scenes. No one recognises her; why should they? Even her body itself is a facsimile of a human; it's merely a close approximation, and as such, there are certain traits which are wholly missing.

For her, the clatter of the human world is distant - she is impassive, witnessing acts of illogical human compassion with little understanding as she surveys the dreary landscape. She sounds out vowels on her tongue and runs her fingers along the strange textures of fur coats and human skin, detached and coolly curious. In alternately white or black liminal space, she discovers and examines her new body. She initially appears as a sort of traditionally predatory female with primitive powers; a destroyer of arrogant male sexuality.

Yet Glazer ultimately reveals the flimsiness of this power dynamic; the female body is a vulnerable place to exist, and she is limited and alienated in a manner which makes that vulnerability striking. In a slow, vicious circle, she becomes tethered to the inherent frailty and altruism of the strangers she encounters, and then discovers the antithesis; a full picture of the ugly mosaic of existence.

Glazer's penetrating, complex, stark vision, as taken from Michel Faber's novel, leaves us with many questions - both practical and philosophical. Where does this alien come from - why is she here? What in god's name is that goo? But also - what is it like to occupy a body, this frail vessel for the soul?  How does our physicality make us human? What about when a body is gendered? Johansson, one of the world's most famous and beautiful sex symbols, offers a striking paradox in this way. Her full-frontal nudity is de-sexed; her alien being is fascinated by the way her muscles and sinew and elbows and kneecaps function. Rather than surveying herself with vanity or sensuality, as the audience may expect, she is interested in the remarkable machinery of the human body. It's a fascinating moment.

We are all imprisoned, empowered, and defined by our physical frames, our flesh and blood, and for better or for worse, this makes up an essential aspect of humanity. The bleak Scottish setting, elemental and desolate, speaks to a gnawing loneliness at Under the Skin's centre. Glazer lyrically interrogates that loneliness - and in so doing, creates a chilling, ambiguous masterwork.


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