Under The Skin
Note - since writing this review I have seen the film a second time, I picked up a lot more and had quite a different response. Further updates coming soon.
I went into ‘Under The Skin’ not knowing much about it. I had seen the trailer which, among other things, includes a review - ‘We may finally have an heir to Kubrick’. I knew that the film was an adaptation of a novel, and featured Scarlett Johansen doing the rounds as a seductive alien in Scotland.
I came out not knowing exactly what to think. There are some brief, stunning, semi-abstract audio visual experiences; there are a lot of vérité scenes of Scarlett Johansen driving around in a van having stilted conversations with strangers; there are some striking and sparse nature scenes; and there are some guys driving round on motorcycles very fast.
On the whole it is cinematic but non-traditional in form, not entirely accessible, and something that leaves you wondering what the missing piece was.
For me the missing piece was not knowing that the scenes in the van were shot with hidden cameras, courting people unaware that they were being cast (and filmed) in a movie with Scarlet Johansen.
This in itself is a fascinating experiment that crystallises the central premise of the narrative, which is essentially to observe how odd it is that men are superficially attracted to women.
There are a few courses by which people might mistakenly dismiss the film - the first being that Glazer is most well known as a music video director. But I think to a large extent his sense of aesthetics, although minimalistic, seem to apply to both form and content.
The second is the expectation that this is a story about an alien. Little is really explored or revealed about the alien’s nature, other than that it is a dispassionate lens through which to view humanity.
The third is that it has supposedly been adapted from a novel - its hard to imagine what the novel would be as you watch the film, but this is perhaps because Glazer has not so much adapted a story as spun the premise of a story into something different that could only be cinema.
The lingering red herring for me is the motorcyclists. I’m ready for someone to fill in what I am missing here here, but my suspicion is that they a left over, something only partially culled from a previous iteration of the story. They are set up as a component of the narrative that begs to be explained but is not; something that adds to the feeling when leaving the theatre that the director might have been wilfully obscure, of added aspects purely for cinematic flair. A small element of distrust that perhaps also makes it easier to disengage with other aspects of work.
I think ultimately the film is a very clever, considered statement. An amazing work in many ways. The sparseness of its overall narrative could be argued as both a pro and a con - on one hand the reductionism helps strip almost everything but the core of the idea; but that the narrative doesn’t so much develop its point as re-iterate it places the film outside the realm of traditional entertainment.
This all begs the question of how warranted the comparisons to Kubrick are.
Glazer has three individually distinctive and technically accomplished films under his belt, but I still don’t see any of them as having quite the scope of Kubrick’s notable works, or the potential to connect with a wider audience.
I think the Kubrick reference is really just part of what has been a reasonably agressive marketing campaign, butI have to admit, I love that this film is luring people into theatres with the promise of seeing ‘Species - with Scarlett Johansen’ and instead presenting them a calculated deconstruction of sexuality (or maybe even humanity).
Will the message hit home for all viewers? Or will many just walk out of the theatre grumbling?
What is the right balance between requiring proactive engagement and risking having people not get it at all? It really depends who you want your audience to be.
I have to confess that I didn’t fully engage with the film until after I read more of its story and encountered some of its more ardent supporters. I might well give it a another viewing to see what I can pick up from the narrative on round two.