Almost a decade since the release of the divisive yet magnificent Birth (2004), Jonathan Glazer makes his long overdue return to screens with Under the Skin (2013); an oppressive, arresting work of pure genius. The film is a beguiling visual and aural experience, following the tenuous thread of British science fiction while simultaneously blazing its own trail. From the audacious genre-bending to the transgressive psychological textures, it all feels like a great act of subversion, prowling threateningly along the edges of the nation’s soul. It’s a film that excels in its obliqueness, where the substance lies in the suggestion.
As a singular work from a homegrown visionary, Glazer’s latest will enthral and mystify in equal measure. Under the Skin follows an alien disguised as a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) driving around Glasgow in a white Ford Transit van, picking up men to feed on. Glazer had to invent new types of hidden cameras to install in the van and secretly film Johansson flirting with unsuspecting locals. These non-actors bring a welcome sense of spontaneity to the proceedings; a quality that is so often absent from science fiction, and the novelty feels almost revolutionary for the genre. Accompanied by Mica Levi’s dissonant score, the camera clandestinely stalks the city streets capturing the ebb and flow of life.
The surveillance has an insidious quality; there’s a sense that Johansson is a succubus draining life from the town. The stolen shots feel like dispatches from the middle of British urban decay; fights in nightclubs, boarded-up buildings and hooded youths. Is she the reckoning? Does this degeneration lie at her feet – like the enemy within – or is she just chancing on a society slowly approaching collapse? The film is a bracing combination of social realism and heightened genre flourishes. The “feeding” scenes are opaque, impressionistic sequences that punctuate the more grounded elements. Aided by painterly compositions, they are at the heart of the film’s enigma.
The events that unfold within such moments are narratively unclear, but they’re rich in allegory and seeping with clinical eroticism, forming the picture’s tonal backbone. The Scottish landscape unfolds in the shadow of these scenes. We begin to question our senses and surroundings; as a mist descends over the Highlands, the terrain feels alien, apocalyptic even. The simplicity of Under the Skin’s narrative belies its thematic richness, with every moment freighted under the weight of potential readings. Through technical mastery and bold ambiguity, Glazer may have given us the best science fiction movie in a decade.
Under the Skin featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here