Under The Skin

Art & Culture

Under The Skin was one of the films I was anticipating most eagerly. Within a few minutes of the film beginning, I started to worry.

The reason for my enthusiasm to see the film is that Jonathan Glazer’s previous two films – Sexy Beast  and Birth  – were both unusual and riveting films. Under The Skin  may be unusual, but riveting it is not. I spent half an hour with a friend after the viewing trying to piece together something that might resemble a coherent narrative. His explanation just about hung together if you make a lot of allowances; but if it requires that much effort from two people who live their lives immersed in film, how on earth are ordinary members of the public going to manage? The answer, I suspect, is not very well.

The selling point for the film, apart from Glazer’s previous two films, will be Scarlett Johansson. More specifically Scarlett Johansson taking her clothes off a lot, and for no very good reason, apart from keeping the audience in the cinema. I’d like to tell you more about the film but it’s difficult, a) because the plot is slim going on invisible, and b) because I’d hate to give away anything which might make it more interesting for you to watch. I can tell you that Johansson’s character (no one has names) is not human, and is driving around Scotland in a white van, picking up single men, seducing them, and then just as they think they’re going to get their hands on her unwrapped body, something happens (I’ll leave that for you to see). 

Quite a lot of the films consists of footage of people walking the streets of Edinburgh; another portion is occupied by scenes shot from inside the van as Scarlett drives around. There are scenes of men on motorbikes zooming round Scotland, and a number of non-seduction scenes. Scotland looks great, Edinburgh looks like Edinburgh, and the film does manage to achieve a striking combination of naturalism and weirdness. There are moments of beauty, and moments of shock, but by the end I was left baffled and frustrated. You can admire Glazer for his unrelenting commitment to achieving his vision without compromise, but that’s a polite way of saying that he has made no concessions to the needs of the audience. Film may be an art, but it is a participative art that requires viewers who are engaged in what they see. There will be (and already are) critics who claim this as a masterpiece, but I suspect they are reviewing the director and his intentions and his supposed integrity, not what actually what happens on the screen.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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