Film review: Under The Skin

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson

Anybody who has read Michel Faber’s remarkable novel Under The Skin would agree that it’s seemingly unfilmable.

Director Jonathan Glazer obviously agreed, as his celluloid vision of the story bears only a passing resemblance to the source material.

The result is a piece of work which Glazer referred to as “a companion piece rather than an adaptation” after the recent Scottish premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival. It’s a tactic which has paid dividends in the form of a film that is quite unlike anything else that has ever been seen before.

The plot sees an alien seductress called Laura (Scarlett Johansson) tour around the West of Scotland on the hunt for solitary male victims. After trapping them using her womenly wiles, she leads her bedazzled suitors to an end which, while undoubtedly bloody, is never fully explained. It’s just one of a series of mysteries scattered around the sparse narrative.

With many scenes shot on the hoof on the streets of Glasgow, it’s never entirely sure which characters are actors and which are simply passersby responding to Johansson’s improvised come-ons. This cinema verite approach both wrong-foots the audience and provides brief moments of much-needed humour amidst the blackness. “Do you know the big Asda at the roundabout?”, blusters one smitten Scot, unaware he’s talking to one of the most famous women on the planet disguised by little more than a bad wig.

Glasgow’s rowdy nightlife provides an occasional backdrop, adding an edge of threatening unpredictably (and making it unlikely to be high on the Glasgow Tourist Board’s list of promotional materials).

When the action leaves the city, the Scottish landscape looks as alien as the emotionless lead character; a world where monsters could exist undetected.

Johansson produces the performance of her life, her beauty never masking the utter lack of humanity lying beneath red lips and porcelain skin. Even her voice - a flawless but indeterminate English accent - seems to have been picked off the peg to court prey, without ever attracting unwanted attention from the rest of the herd. She’s the perfect predator, although her motives remain unclear.

Glazer eschews cheap scares for an altogether more cerebral nightmare of fluid morality and oblique imagery reminiscent of both Davids Cronenberg and Lynch.

An arthouse film in the skin of an exploitation movie, it’s a cinematic chimera that is impossible to forget - no matter how hard you may try.