Under the Skin (2013)

This isn't Tesco's, is it?

I have some ambivalence towards Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s third film. Firstly and centrally, it is a triumph of filmmaking craft. It really is a stunning piece of direction, editing, and soundtrack; it has clear thematic purpose and careful thought put into it; it’s anchored by a powerful performance by Scarlett Johansson; and it is profoundly empathetic. All of that is why I give it a rating I reserve for films that achieve something special.

But I also find this film frustrating to watch. It’s a constant clench with very little in the way of release other than the haunting scenes in the black abyss, and even those manage to feel repetitive by the end. The payoff is pretty small, and honestly anything resembling narrative or thematic progress is limited to the slow and subtle ways that Johansson’s character tweaks her serial killer routine across the runtime.

The film follows a woman who apparently exists outside of basic human parameters. Most synopses of the film label her an alien, like from outer space, though this is not clearly indicated by the film. But this assumption is in part because the book on which the film is based makes her extraterrestrial origin explicit. (The opening includes some 2001: A Space Odyssey visual quotations and the black emptiness of her home base evokes outer space, which helps lead to that conclusion. The poster looks like a starry night, too.) Certainly she’s someone who is comfortable neither in her human body nor around other people, though she gradually comes to appreciate both as the film proceeds. The Female, as Johansson is credited, follows a routine of luring lonely men into her van and trapping them sans clothes in some mysterious black goo.

Glazer sustains the tension of this scenario remarkably long; at least half the movie. And then it reaches a sort of monotony. I gradually realized it would never do very much with all of the hard setup work it puts into its terrifically engaging opening scenes. There’s no catharsis or real tipping point in Under the Skin. Her one flash of humanity in the second half of the film is ultimately both contrived and underwhelming, a sort of “real beauty is on the inside” frying pan across the face that is so on the nose I rolled my eyes.

But, again, Glazer’s is so needle-precise in his formal construction that it more or less overwhelms the lack of narrative thrust. The impressionistic body-snatching opening is skin-crawling. The editing is so jarring and hallucinatory, it makes the viewer feel like they’re the one on an alien world. Mica Levi’s score is an unsettling triumph. It’s unquestionably art, an assembly of images that is chilly, glorious, and beautiful.

So I’d be underselling Under the Skin to call it anything less than a great film. But it’s great in a way that impresses me and makes me nod my head in appreciation rather than engages me. I’m not quite bored, but the awed version of that.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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