The third feature by the London-born filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin is a work of exacting strangeness. Like Gravity, the movie testifies to the power and hypnotic wonder of image and sound. The movie has some truly knockout images, a motorcycle cutting like a blade through the nocturnal landscapes, waves lashing against the coastal cliffs of the Highlands or most frightening, the fate of avid men seduced by the mysterious central character.
The movie is adapted, very loosely, from the 2001 novel by the Dutch-born Michael Faber, by the director and his writing partner Walter Campbell. (Glazer admitted that Campbell never even read the book.) The novel, closer in form and tone to Anthony Burgess, is more satirical, about consumerism and also more explicit in pointing out the rationale motivating the alien’s behavior.
Under the Skin is a meditation on the form and erotic wonder of Scarlett Johansson. She plays the alien seductress who falls to Earth and takes the shape of a carnal loner who navigates the streets of Glasgow in a white van. Adopting the persona of a Londoner who’s lost, she gains their confidence and slyly seduces them. It is utterly nerve-wracking and transfixing to watch of the men led into an inky-black pool of slit that issues an eerie transmogrification.
Johansson, who's so astounding beautiful, has never really received her just due as an actress. She is electric, especially in the movie's brilliant centerpiece, an extended pas a deux between her character and a virginal, severely deformed middle-aged man she offers a kind of erotic sanctuary. The emotional exchange alters her being, deepening her own humanity and, conversely, exposing her to a wholly different form of vulnerability and weakness.
Johansson avails herself emotionally and sexually in a way she has never really been demanded of. Under the Skin is a great many things, often contradictory, the exasperating and annihilating alternating side-by-side. As storytelling, the movie seems an acute failure, deprived of clarity, emotional insight or psychological intricacy. The tradeoffs are ample, Johansson's performance, the score (Mica Levi) and the voluptuous, sinister visual rhyming.
Now the film is available as a digital download, VOD at Amazon, and a forthcoming high-definition Blu-ray. During an interview, Glazer talked about art and matter and how the long-gestating project came to being.
The idea of subterfuge is central not only to the film but its making. The pick-up scenes were shot clandestinely, with hidden cameras and the performers, many of them nonprofessionals, had no idea it was Scarlett Johansson.
Jonathan Glazer: That hidden camera idea came from over a period of thinking about the story. You’re just looking for it and you don’t know yet what it is until you find it. I didn’t feel sated yet. I knew there was a big method, a methodology we hadn’t yet discovered.They don’t just come out of nowhere. They come out of being immersed in the problems and the issues and you continue to turn them over until things coalesce and you just understood how to do it.
I shot something once in Toronto with a woman running down the street and I had 57 hidden cameras, because I wanted to keep the street completely open and have the woman run through, having people coming into and out of shops, going onto buses and seeing her negotiate her own life. I guess that was a sketch. Alongside that it came about with trying to find a way of being able to cast this film with a familiar actress.
I had a real disquiet of how to shoot this film with somebody who was really familiar to us. We needed somebody to be alien, and this was a way of achieving that. The idea of surveillance, the idea of shooting the world as it is, felt so critical because if the film is about her observing human beings and what we are and how we behave, in order for us to have some kind of value to her, than it has to be real.
The film is punctuated with mystery and dread, but you have said the key to the film is the scene on the beach, with the child and the interaction of the alien and the Czech man she meets there.
Glazer: The baby on the beach, what’s interesting about that, is than when [the alien] is in the traffic jam after that and hears the sound of the baby crying and she looks around, as if it’s in the glove box or something, it’s a baby in the backseat of a car. It’s the first time in the film she looks away from her target. It’s the first time in the film there’s almost a curiosity, some residue of memory. She just turns her head. The whole beach scene is really to achieve that, that tiny shift in focus; that’s the beginning. It’s not just who she meets, but what she smells and what she sees. For all of us, it’s the sum of all of those experiences.
The movie’s couched in the mood and style of science fiction. The deeper we get into the film, the more it becomes a kind of inquiry into what it means to be human.
Glazer: I hope so. Those are the things we were interested in. Also the fact that there’s no way into it, there’s no salvation or redemption, there’s no completion. It’s evolving as we are. People go into the cinema and they want to come out with answers. The more this film would have made sense, the less it would have. It needed to be in charge of its ambiguities.
I think Scarlett’s character is fabulously complex and inscrutable. I find that all very human. Charting that drift from a very clear objective to this confusion and delusion that she has was a very difficult arc to create; it was constructed not just on the page, but in the editing and the music, and just finding the right curve. It was never about one event is going to be happen, and she’s going to turn left now or right. That was difficult to chart and calibrate.
This is probably the most extreme example of the dialectic in your films capturing a conflict between your need to innovate though also make something that conforms to the idea of commercial cinema.
Glazer: I think you’re right. I do find plot tyrannical. I want plot to be light-footed. I want it to follow emotional truths. What’s interesting is that sometimes when you shoot, what you write is emotional truth and what you shoot, what you think is the emotional truth, is not in the scene. You then look for the truth again when you look at the rushes.
When you look at the rushes, you’re looking at the things that feel most truthful and you begin to assemble that. You have to tell the plot in an unexpected way. You’re still aware that you have to tell the story, but you’re doing it less predictably. It’s about understanding the life and the footage you shot.
I’m still making my way through that. I feel like I’m moving further away from narrative. I appreciate a story, I love a great story, but I’m always looking for an idea that I could wrap around the back of a cigarette package and then investigate the form of that. I’m not the best person to go and shoot a story.
I don’t think it would challenge me in the way I want to challenge myself. I’m fascinated and preoccupied with the form. When you see those moments that transcend, they become something else, they take off and it’s very hard to go back from that, to identify that and not want more of it. Perhaps some of the music videos I’ve done has gotten me into that habit.
How did you shoot the film, and how, in a wider sense, has your work been impacted by the radical changes wrought by technology and digital.
Glazer: We invented cameras to shoot this film. Once we decided we’re going to shoot her in disguise and the world as it is, we started to ask how can we do that, or how can we achieve that. Testing the cameras that are out there didn’t give us the result that we needed. So we had to build on our own. We built these cameras because we needed a tool that wasn’t out there. We used a German camera that was used to shoot the inside of industrial machinery.
I love the aesthetic of [the camera]. It had the quality not of film, or even digital, the blacks bled and the colors rolled and it was beautiful. The aesthetic comes from the need of that tool. I think the idea of images and wanting your film to look a certain way, I’m less interested in that now. I think it’s about what suits the story you’re trying to tell.
You become more liberated in the process.
Glazer: Film’s gone now, but I think you have to look at that as an opportunity. I mourn the loss of film, but I’m not preoccupied by that. These aren’t the tools anymore. It’s not immersive. We invented a camera that ended up having an aesthetic that satisfied that. It was alchemy to the image somehow, which you never get from a digital camera. I like the way an iPhone camera image looks, but at the same time I can see an Eadweard Muybridge print of how San Francisco looks and be rocked backwards.
I think it’s important to look for the idea and what’s important for that.
Images courtesy of A24 Films.