By ALAN SWERDLOW
Under The Skin / Directed by Jonathan Glazer / 16NSVL
I was going to use the phrase “strong meat” in analysing Jonathan Glazer’s cinematic adaptation of Michael Faber’s sci-fi novel, and then thought better of it. Strong meat would be highly inappropriate given the inferences in Glazer’s film, which are a lot more explicit in the novel. Suffice it to say that this film will not be to everyone’s taste; in fact it has limited appeal, but those willing to open themselves to the movie’s slow rhythms, oblique narrative and minutely calibrated inferences will be richly rewarded. Some weeks after the preview screening, and I still cannot shake images and the questions they engender from my mind. The film is truly haunting.
The first image that we see is a dot that by accretion resolves into the pupil of an eye. In many ways it echoes the solarised image of a blinking eye that ends the time-warp, trippy journey that is the climax of Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey, which we gradually come to realise is the observant eye of astronaut Bowman.
Here it is an injunction to the viewer to observe, to watch, but not in a passive, indifferent way like the individual to whom the eye belongs – an unnamed, strikingly beautiful woman personified by Scarlett Johansson. With dark hair and a generous, China-red mouth, Johansson seems to be reduced to an iconic abstraction of beauty – hair, eyes, mouth.
At the same time as the eye resolves, we hear Johansson’s voice working through a series of vocal exercises or consonant and vowel combinations, much like a singer or an actor warming up before a performance. The phonemes seem meaningless, but language is either unintelligible or so spare in this film that we soon realise that it is through the visual that most communication takes place here.
Johansson circles the streets of Glasgow in a white van, stopping to engage lone men in conversation and then offering them a lift. We next see them undressing and wading into a pool of oily blackness, while she tantalisingly appears to walk on its surface. Sometimes, more disconcertingly, the pick-ups simply vanish in a single editing cut from the seated position beside her in the van.
Throughout, Johansson seems disengaged or indifferent. Emotion never enlivens her features, other than a wariness or watchfulness that is a partial theme to this narrative. She watches, we watch her watching people in the streets, and the camera watches all. Part of her observation seems to be the acquisition of information or knowledge. In a deeply disquieting scene she watches a man drowning in the sea while a baby cries on the beach. She then follows her passive computation of the sequence of events with a sudden act of violence that, after the indifference, is all the more shocking to us, the viewers, who have been equally impassive. Later moments have her not reacting in any expected way to appearances or occurrences.
I’ll say no more of this, because Under The Skin is so subtle and evocative in its fragmentary narrative that any further description would affect the experience the audience undergoes, and this is an experiential movie – the cognitive analysis comes much later.
I was discussing with a colleague how rarely nowadays a film sends one out afterwards into a coffee-house and heated debate. This is one such movie and you can argue its meaning for days and weeks afterwards, let alone its merits and demerits.
The cinematography by Daniel Landin is moody and evocative, and the most disquieting images are not fragments of narrative and specific scenes, but the random capturing of disparate, real, non-acting people on Sauchiehall Street and its adjacent side streets. Johansson is not alone in her (its?) attempt to grasp what it is to be human.
Scarlett Johansson is simply mesmerising as the film’s centre and the complexity and delicate control of her performance is breathtaking. I’m sure she couldn’t begin to explain how she achieved what she does.
There we were, at the end of the screening, with half the reviewers bored and irritated, and the other half (me included) utterly transported and in need of counselling. If you choose to watch it, surrender yourself to its totality and you may well be deeply satisfied, as, ultimately, I was.