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Review: Under the Skin

About: Under the Skin is a 2013 British-American science fiction film directed by Jonathan Glazer. Produced by James Wilson and Nick Wechsler, it was written by Glazer and Walter Campbell as an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name. The film stars Scarlett Johansson who preys on men in Scotland.

Plot: In Scotland, an attractive young woman travels the country in a van picking up men. As she lures her victims into a trap with the promise of sex.This film is brilliant and odd. I was wondering if I could talk about this film and veil what is actually going on. After doing tons of research I noticed that nobody is doing this and actually raising the curtain to reveal the wizard helps, it does not hurt the film in any way. Now, I went into this film knowing nothing so everything was metaphor. I had my own narrative about a new visual language going which is still relevant but much was literal and not metaphorical. When I see this film again it will be a completely different experience.

I am of two minds about this film. On the one hand I think that maybe it should not be in mainstream cinemas because it is so different. Then I think that it should be in mainstream cinemas because it is so different. I mean, as an audience, we are used to seeing killings and serial killers in a very usual way. This film-style kind of reminds me of Lars Von Trier in that we might need a new visual language to talk about death and being human. Maybe the horror of kidnapping or murder should not be ‘usual’ at all.

The impassionate, unemotional luring of victims is a good way to show the horrific. It is only comprehensible as a foreign experience. It can only make sense as Other.

Glazer, the director, says, “When people ask me what the film’s about, it sounds ridiculous, so I just don’t say what it’s about! I think people may go see it who are Scarlett fans but maybe not fans of a film like this, and then there are people who are fans of a film like this but maybe not fans of Scarlett. It’s quite interesting to put those two ingredients together, I suppose. I’m hopeful that people will see it because it’s quite exciting to have something so experimental to be seen.”

Everything here is new and this newness is shown through the experience of our lead character. The experience of being human is fleshed out on many levels. How she experiences the ‘new’ in life, death, sex, love, food, the environment etc. is very revealing about the nature of passion and curiosity.

The camera work is stunning and there are some unique angels. Daniel Landin — has worked as a lighting designer for Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows and as a DP for music videos for Radiohead, Robbie Williams, Madonna and others — about the unique challenges he faced in bringing Glazer’s vision to the screen, including working with existing light sources, filming non-actors (without their knowledge) and camouflaging a Hollywood star.

He says that he, “started out as a filmmaker myself and essentially fell into music videos at a point when they were quite experimental and were very much director-led short pieces that would go along with music. As a result, I had a very good opportunity to explore lots of different techniques of filmmaking, which is essentially where I started the process – being more influenced by experimental cinema, primarily early Soviet cinema, expressionist German cinema, post-WWII French cinema. I don’t really see in essence that influence by commercials and videos, but rather that I’ve been able to work within those areas in ways that are creatively satisfying.”

Landin says, “Preceding the shoot, we explored the possibility of using very small cameras. What was available to us was either not small enough or not good quality enough. As a result, we ended up developing our own camera which enabled us to record very high quality raw data on a very small camera. Initially, that took the form of putting Scarlett inside the van which she drives with 8 cameras hidden within that van. So she could drive into any situation without it appearing that there was any kind of filming process going on.”

The script is sparse. The acting is good. It was complex for me to reconcile this Hollywood actress with a serious role. However, Johansson did do Lost in Translation and Her, both of which are phenomenal films. I gave her the benefit of doubt. There’s only about three lines of dialogue in the entire film, so it can hardly have been the standout script. The main point of her character is that she doesn’t actually have a character. She doesn’t do emotion. And it was filmed in Scotland. In winter. And most of the film consists of her standing around in wet boots and a too-thin coat. Or stripping off her clothes in a derelict squat and luring men into a vat of black ectoplasm. (At one point, she appears naked. Johansson fans, of which there are many, most especially the male variety, have been lighting up message boards for months with discussion of this particular fact.) Nakedness was not gratuitous and so integral to the character and plot that her decision to do this made her a serious actress in my books.

Johansson says, “I heard Jonathan was making a film and originally it was a very different story. But I met him, and it was very clear that he was struggling to figure out what he was doing with it, and what had attracted him to it… I thought it would be incredibly challenging to play a character that’s free of judgment, that has no relationship to any emotion I could relate to.”

I lovelovelovelove experimental film but I saw this film with sci-fi fans, not experimental film fans, and they adored it. I think that the fragility of being human transcended the unique form of the film. I am really looking forward to seeing this film again.


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