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Under the Skin

Under the Skin

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Rating: ★★★★½ 

There’s a scene early in Under the Skin in which predatory femme fatale Laura (Scarlett Johansson), about to ensnare her latest male victim, is brusquely shoved aside by the harsh hand of nature. The man rushes down the rocky Scottish coastline and into the water, intent on saving a jacket-clad daytripper from the chilly waves. The flailing man refuses the rescue, focused on saving his wife, who’s already gone under pursuing the couple’s runaway dog. This foggy coastal tableaux, complete with a forgotten baby wailing on the shore, pushes horror and poignancy into uncomfortably close vicinity, creating a tense interplay of emotion and detachment: the heartless alien huntress on one side, three helpless humans on another, framed against the callous might of the landscape, struggling to help one another and destroying themselves in the process. In the end the swimmer fails to save anyone, fatigued and spit back up on shore, where Laura, an icy extraterrestrial black widow charged with harvesting male muscle, staves his head in with a rock.

This scene is the centerpiece of the film’s dazzling first half, positioned amid bewildering bursts of stylish abstraction and equally odd, hidden-camera collected faux-realism. Hinting at a complex storyline while keeping its exact details tantalizingly obscure, Glazer strips down Michel Faber’s eponymous source novel (and its accompanying sci-fi mythos) into something slender but substantial, using indistinct but potent images in place of direct exposition. Full of yawning voids, wide landscape shots and a distinct, gradual passage across the entire color spectrum, the film moves from all-out avant-garde intensity to some semblance of narrative action, mirroring this transition with a matched increase in human presence. Under the Skin gets less interesting as it transitions toward something resembling a recognizable narrative, but the second half downturn is also essential, assuring that the opening salvo isn’t just an empty stylistic exercise.

Defined as an alien only by her inhuman demeanor and advanced technology, Laura is placed in direct contrast with the ordinary Glaswegians she encounters, an ethereal presence in red lipstick, black wig and brown fur coat. Trawling highways and back-roads in an anonymous white van, she lures men to a tumbledown house somewhere on the city outskirts, where they’re effectively pickled in an inky void, the same slinky, abstruse method of gradual consumption repeating again and again. The film remains stingy with the origins of its bizarre heroine, or any concrete details about her mission on Earth, aside from the just-as beguiling presence of a mysterious biker (played by pro road-racer Jeremy McWilliams, credited only as ‘The Bad Man’), who cleans up her messes, and later emerges as a genuine threat.

Describing his 1969 Satyricon, Federico Fellini calls his strange vision of ancient Rome a ‘science fiction of the past’; Glazer applies a similarly eccentric lens to the Scottish countryside, approximating an otherworldly perspective, making every image seem foreign. He pushes this practice even further by matching the crisp abstract passages with grainier 16mm footage of Laura on the prowl, placing Johansson in real life scenarios involving unwitting non-actors. These scenes, captured through remote cameras, stolen shots and anonymous crowd footage, have an inverted documentary feel – artificiality conveyed via verité methods – and make for an extraordinary, uneasy pairing with the more oblique stuff. Imagine the opening moments of Persona giving way to ethnographic docu-portrait, then leaping back and forth between those two poles.

Scenes like the one at the coast spin that strain into something tangible, making clearly staged set pieces seem frighteningly real. In his book The Silent Clowns critic Walter Kerr discusses the innate tension of the relationship between performers like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and their audiences. They needed the footage of their high-flying stunts to appear real enough to wow fans, setting the stage for cathartic laughter at the end of each bit, but not so much to seem genuinely life-threatening. Glazer isn’t beholden to any such demands, and so we’re presented with a puzzling story full of confounding images, like the sight of those struggling swimmers, portrayed by extras who seem about to be dashed to pieces, the sea stormy and wild enough for the whole thing to feel fundamentally unsafe.

Such illusions of danger contained with controlled circumstances establish Under the Skin as a sleek, confident piece of sci-fi iconography. Like Sexy Beast and Birth, which employed wild narrative flourishes backed up by strong aesthetic foundations, the film’s inverted sense of closed-lipped mystery is integrated perfectly within a broader sleight of hand, the gestures toward randomness all part of a tightly structured illusion. This makes for a singular work, one that pushes buttons in ways they rarely get pushed, the sort of movie that makes most others feel ordinary and unadventurous. Stripping narrative down to its essentials, the film matches high-end, immaculately toned visual stunts with shocking bits of verisimilitude, creating its own intricate alien rhythm.

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