Under the Skin begins in some kind of deeper blackness, less cinema space than outer space. Perhaps it’s the same unfriendly blackness to which our protagonist will deposit her victims. A projector’s beam cuts through, and we’re looking at what appears to be the formation of an eye, listening to what sounds like the uploading of verbal nuance in infinite variety, some ultra-fast-tracked language lessons. Sound and vision—it’s alive! Alive! Or nearly so.
The “it” in question is a femme fatale of the third kind, and it’s taken control of the luscious exterior of some sacrificial lass who looks just like Scarlett Johansson. It, now she, is a long cool black widow who’s come to Scotland from another galaxy to go cruising in a big black van for hapless lusty louts, luring them to some anonymous flat where they’ll sink into some fatal ink, their bodies bloating and bursting and their flesh harvested for unspecified purposes. She hasn’t been bred or programmed for pity or compassion, but as this mysterious, singularly arresting work of science fiction-meets-quasi-anthropological experiment makes its way, she will develop something called curiosity, one of the finer but also more precarious human attributes. It can lead to discovery and empathy, but also vulnerability and danger.
The sound of a baby’s cry on some rocky beach seems to be the tipping point in our story. From here on our anti-heroine goes native begins to wonder about the world, its culture, and, in one of the film’s most humorous moments, her own body. As Mica Levi’s music—one of the best scores I’ve heard in years, its strings like agitated bees—shape the film’s sound-world into an increasingly sensitive, tenser, almost febrile place, we come to see earthly life through extraterrestrial eyes: the utter weirdness of a space heater or a television or a discotheque or kissing, or this whole eating and drinking business. I can think of few films so alienating and yet so exquisitely alert to hypothetical first impressions of what for the rest of us is just drearily ordinary life.
Jonathan Glazer has spent his filmmaking career loving the alien. Both of his previous features, Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004), turn on the arrival of a strange and threatening visitor. In the case of Under the Skin, inspired by the less cryptic Michel Faber novel of the same name, Glazer’s visitor moves from the role of antagonist to that of protagonist in what is nearly a first-person narrative. It’s a bold, creepy notion and, it would seem, an irresistible challenge. I met with Glazer during Under the Skin’s Canadian premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and asked him about his interest in assuming the quintessential Other’s point of view.
“Making choices about what it is that she sees never stopped being exciting to me, even as years of starts and stops passed,” Glazer explains. “What does she get to experience of this world and what will it mean to her as it accumulates? Our idea in shaping the story was always that if you could understand what she saw and, latterly, how she felt, then you would find your place in this unusual story. To find that osmotic growth for her was always the bottom line.”
The project was indeed a labour of long-term love, nearly nine years in the making, yet Glazer’s perfectionism regarding filmmaking craft—those comparisons to Stanley Kubrick are not merely decorative—and the development of the script, co-written by Glazer and Walter Campbell, is shrewdly thwarted by a modus operandi designed to dismantle directorial control. The scenes which find our anti-heroine looking for men were produced by having a wigged Johansson—who’s perfect in this role, by the way—actually drive around in a van outfitted with hidden cameras and actually try to pick up random dudes off the street. The surprise and arousal of these men are real. Repurposing techniques employed by Abbas Kiarostami in Ten (2002), directorial control during these sequences was limited to what Glazer could see remotely and what he could say to Johansson via a tiny earpiece. It may sound like a gimmick, but this approach gives the film a texture that it would have otherwise lacked.
“The writing was very rigorous,” Glazer explained. “We spent a lot of time turning over ideas until they felt absolutely essential. We needed sturdy planning to allow the improvisation to flourish. Without a plan, when you go off-course you can just get lost. I wanted the film to have a clear structure but also to just find itself sometimes—and it did. Scarlett turns left and the film’s going to down that street, she turns right and it’s going down that one. It was an extremely liberating way to work, driving around in that van with all the cameras shooting simultaneously, knowing that the scene hinged on her going over to someone and making a choice in the instant. Exhilarating. I loved it. I would still be in that van, given the choice.”
The influence of Kubrick on Glazer is obvious, but Under the Skin contains more distinctive and intriguing echoes of the films of Nicolas Roeg, not only because Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) works from a similar premise, but because the radical approach to editing and perspective in Roeg’s best films invite a balance of precision and spontaneity into storytelling that Glazer seems to be aspiring to. Of course, after spending so many years conceiving of and giving birth to Under the Skin, Glazer’s eyes glaze over when the subject of precedents or influences arise. So much goes into making a movie, the countless choices and compromises, it’s hardly like Glazer spent the whole time thinking, “What would Nic do?”
“Film is a language,” Glazer says with a calm objectivity that kind of mirrors that of his film’s protagonist. “You start with the letters, working through the alphabet, and then one by one you write a sentence, then a paragraph, and then you get to the point where you’re fluent enough to write poetry.”
Glazer’s particular poetry is layered in a way that’s native to cinema, austere on the surface but dense with sensations arrived at by the collision of artifice and reality, direction and observation, fruitful collaboration and auteurist vision, exposition and mystery. There is a long, dreamlike dissolve near the film’s unforgettable ending that matches nothing else in the rest of the film, yet it is haunting, and it feels absolutely critical to the protagonist’s journey. It is perhaps the strongest evidence in favour of Glazer’s unique creative gifts—other directors would not have found it. Under the Skin will surely frustrate some. It does have a way of getting under your skin. And it is a work of eerie and cruel beauty.