TIFF 2013 | Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK)—Special Presentation


By Jay Kuehner

Or, Scarlett Johansson Sleep Walk With Me. Jonathan Glazer’s protracted gestation (nine years) in bringing Michael Faber’s cult novel down to earth and into festivals (theatres would be a reach, as distribution could prove a challenge for this anomaly) signals a perfectionist at work or a project better off abandoned, and Under The Skin equivocally bears out both possibilities. Ostensibly science fiction in spirit, the narrative as such begins in a state of milky galactic twilight—diaphanous spheres pulsing to spectral breaths, signifying extraterrestrial transmission of sorts – before descending to the Scottish countryside, where a female corpse is dutifully extracted from a bog by a brooding motorcyclist. In a white-light chamber resembling an off-hours James Turrell installation, the protagonist-alien loosely embodied by Johansson swaps herself into a new skin (or at least the deceased’s tights and heels) and embarks by white cargo van into Glasgow’s ashen streets and the Scottish highlands looking for male flesh to export.

There’s an under-explored sociological insight to be gleaned from the encounters that follow, namely the absence of bristling that emanates from a sexy alien trying to woo roadside lads who’d for the most part rather offer clumsy directions or proceed to the grocery on foot. Those who capitulate to her glazed seductions (must be the accent, mate) are led into distinctly hollowed-out flats where the road to consummation is littered with tossed-off garments, an eerie electronic score (courtesy Mica Levi), and paved with an all-enveloping ink-black void, the pool into which desirous males are inevitably, helplessly sunk and snared. Patience, on behalf of the men, could be their only defense, or conversely the means by which they are sufficiently tenderized for abduction. The heartless, bewigged temptress discovers that a little mercy lends the job some more joy, which in turn might make her just a little more human.

The montage sequences in which Johansson’s resident alien stalks the streets are suffused with sufficient voyeuristic pleasure, abetted by Daniel Landen’s fine, charcoaled camerawork, but are floated without determined weight—she’s more gawker than stalker. Such vacuity could reflect the vague interface occasioned by the human/alien encounter, but weightlessness is something that more searching filmmakers have endeavored to conjure and shape from less far-out scenarios. This is cutaneous filmmaking, for those who are tempted to hitch a ride and plunge into the unctuous abyss of such apparitions.