UNDER THE SKIN directed by Jonathan Glazer (UK,USA, 2013)
The greatest movies are those that discretely change your perception of the world. Inspiring auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch play upon the voyeuristic nature of cinema and their strength of their vision lies in drawing the viewer into the kind of dark and sinister worlds ‘normal’ citizens would go out of our way to avoid. Jonathan Glazer can safely be added to this exclusive director’s club.
Under The Skin is loosely based on Michel Faber’s brilliant and disturbing debut novel. The operative word here is ‘loosely’ because so much of the plot has been changed it almost amounts to a different story entirely. The Scottish setting is the same but otherwise the divergences far outweigh the similarities. Even so, the movie captures the essence of the novel by being faithful to the atmosphere if not the details.
In the novel the alienated alien, Isserley, is described as “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady” which is hardly a description that applies to Scarlett Johansson who still manages to look sexy despite wearing a scraggy black wig and manky fur jacket. In fact Glazer makes sex the chief way in which the solitary males are lured to their fate; they don’t have to be drugged.
The movie is seriously creepy although not as explicitly horrific as the book. The victims disappear into a strange liquid, a symbolic and seemingly painless death which is a happy death compared to the nightmarish process of being turned into braised meat that Faber describes.
As in the novel, we see our world through the eyes of a predatory outsider. The alien in human skin prowls the streets in a transit van looking for single males and the sense of brooding menace is heightened by the haunting soundtrack composed by Mica Levi.
The film took 10 years to make, more because of logistical complications than the need for a big budget or lavish special effects. Ultimately, the filmmaking process appears to have been one stripping away any hint of a glossy veneer so that the end result has the authentic look of a documentary. Hidden cameras filmed scenes on the streets of Glasgow, with ordinary citizens being unwittingly co-opted into the storyline. Much of the minimalist dialogue is unscripted and a lot of the time consists solely of us watching the watcher. The fact that the screenplay was pared down to just 50 pages gives some idea of how much was allowed to evolve at random.
In this way we enter into the world of a calculating, unsentimental hunter as she seeks human victims for purposes that are deliberately left obscure. No manipulation is required to make the lives of these city dwellers look bleak and cheerless. So sad and lonely do these humans look that the fatal last seduction of Scarlett Johansson is made to look more like an act of humane culling than sadistic killing.