Following an almost decade-long absence – his last film, the controversial Birth, was released in 2004 – director Jonathan Glazer returns with his third feature, Under the Skin (2013), which joins a strong raft of British films in competition at the 70th Venice Film Festival. Scarlett Johansson stars as the woman who fell to Earth, an alien who – assuming the form of an alluring temptress – lures men into her van with promises of sex, only for them to befall a terrible fate. Although based on Michael Faber’s 2000 novel, Glazer’s film dumps much of the plot and the more obvious factory farming-targeted satire of the latter section.
What remains is an impressionistic piece of Martian poetry, viewing Scottish roads, shopping centres and scenic vistas as an alien planet. The utter strangeness of the world is seen through the visitor’s eyes as she wanders past football crowds and into nightclubs. As with Shane Carruth’s Upstream Colour (2013), a film with which it shares the same ambitions and achievements, recognisable science fiction tropes are almost non-existent. Glazer has also achieved an immediacy with his use of amateur actors and hidden cameras to follow an initially unrecognisable Johansson on her seemingly sinister quest.
The authentic street scenes, thick dialects and social realism seem lifted straight from the grittiest of Ken Loach films. Such regional specificity is seamlessly mixed by Glazer with the fragmented, often hypnotically beautiful visuals and scenes of bizarrely imagined horror, all to a pounding abstract Wendy Carlos-like score by Mica Levi (aka Micachu). Carrying the film, Johansson is eerily superb, her neutral British accent and easy flirtatiousness – she’s most certainly not an obvious sex siren – are totally believable. Then, when she no longer needs the charm, she shuts off; a cold, unknowable other with the expressionless, obsidian eyes of a predatory shark. She is the uncanny femme fatale, a ‘sex object’ for whom sex is not the object.
Yet although Under the Skin plays with female stereotypes – the flirt, the succubus, even the witch – Johansson’s otherness is never effectively translated into a human cultural norm. She never speaks to her support team – a man on a motorcycle who acts as a cleaner and fixer – and so we get only hints at why she’s doing what she’s doing (and blessedly no back-story). An encounter with one particular victim, however, will lead to cracks appearing in the creature’s indomitable will. The latter half of the film follows Johansson as, utterly isolated, she flees the safety of the van and the hunting grounds of the city streets for the lonely, fog-shrouded, rain-drenched wastes of an almost primeval Highlands.
Beside the more crowd-pleasing fare of Stephen Frears’ Oscar-hungry though efficient Philomena (2013), both Glazer and Under the Skin has reminded the Lido of that other tradition of British film; the experimental, challenging, disturbing work of the likes of Nicholas Roeg and the dearly departed The Devils director Ken Russell. With this near-perfect midnight movie, he has given us a work of unsettling and riveting brilliance. Let’s hope the wait for his next project won’t be quite so long this time.
The 70th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August to 7 September, 2013. For more of our Venice 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.