Under the Skin (2013)
How do you even evaluate a film when you sort of loved almost everything about it yet in the end have no concrete idea once you look back & wonder what it was all about? It’s extremely rare in cinema to find yourself continuously struggling with your very own emotions, completely unsure of which side you want to settle with for whenever a step is taken in either direction, something from the opposite end of the spectrum keeps bringing you back to where you started from. And providing such unique experience is Jonathan Glazer’s latest feature; a mystical blend of horror, sci-fi & mystery that’s easily amongst the most perplexing, challenging & polarizing narratives to come out in recent years.
Very loosely based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name & much more abstract in tone when compared to its source material, the story of Under the Skin is set in modern-day Scotland & follows a mysterious woman who drives through the streets of Glasgow, seducing lonely men (one at a time) in order to lure them into her van, after which she takes them back to her apartment where they follow her into a black void & are led into some sort of black liquid. She is assisted by a motorcyclist whose job is to tie up any loose ends which could connect her to the disappeared victims. Things are set in motion when one particular event compels the woman to begin a journey of self-discovery.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin is my first stint with his works & although I’m still connecting the pieces of this mind-bending puzzle, there are many elements in the picture I was instantly impressed with. The opening scene bears much similarity to the respective scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey plus even Glazer’s direction exhibits a Kubrick-like precision control over all aspects of filmmaking, which is no mere compliment. The screenplay adapts only the basic premise of the book while its themes are explored in a very intricate manner. The entire plot is visually narrated, use of dialogues is minimal & any kind of exposition is virtually absent from the story.
Coming to the technical aspects, Under the Skin is a masterwork of dazzling beauty. The shooting locations are elegantly chosen for the wonderfully photographed landscapes of Scotland not only gives its story an otherworldly look & feel but also brings an elevated sense of calmness & solitude with it. Following its character like a silent observer, its spellbinding cinematography captures every single frame in crisp detail, benefits a lot from near-perfect use of lighting & carries out its fluid tracking movements, close-up takes, lingering shots, or hidden camera angles with sublime effectiveness. Also, as far as editing goes, it lets the narrative set its own pace & unfold in a comfortable manner.
Considering that the story is about a woman who preys on men by seducing them, it wasn’t only important to cast someone who looks highly convincing in the given role but must also have a strong sex appeal so that her screen presence alone can make the audience feel her power of seduction. And so, who better to fill that spot than the one n only Scarlett Johansson! Commanding the screen like never before, what Johansson manages to accomplish here is something that was quite unexpected from the actress for her performance is as impressive & audacious as it is erotic & alluring, plus she does a stellar job in getting under the skin of her character & play the role from inside out.
Whether it’s trying to make sense of her surroundings or attempting to understand a human feeling or making an effort to blend into the society or engaging in a conversation with total strangers or simply observing from a distance, Johansson manages to make every scene work effortlessly with her piercing gaze & controlled body language, in what is probably her career-best work to date. Last but not the least, it’s near-impossible to imagine just how less effective this story would’ve been if it wasn’t for Mica Levi’s skin-crawling score which not only makes the experience all the more unsettling but does a stellar job in further amplifying its intensely creepy, haunting & freakish ambience.
On an overall scale, Under the Skin is far too complex a film to be fully analysed on the first watch but there’s simply no denying that it’s an extremely haunting, hypnotic & surreal work of cinematic art which wonderfully portrays the best & worst of humanity through the eyes of an outsider. A difficult film to review & an even harder one to rate, Under the Skin was always destined to polarize its audience, is an incredibly bizarre, bewildering & bewitching piece of cinema which pleases & frustrates, invites & repels, excites & bores plus satisfies & disappoints simultaneously, and is unquestionably the most memorable art film of the year. A unique & profoundly affecting experience.