It has been stated elsewhere that, had the cinema not in it’s conception and infancy looked to the theatre, novel and prose for structural inspiration, the movies might look like Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. A stark, visually driven piece of Cinéma Pur, Glazer’s film is tied not to the constraints of traditional storytelling, and instead moves to a rhythm all of its own.
Under The Skin is loosely describable as an Alien invasion movie, albeit one whose focus is not so much on the invasion as it is the capture and seizure efforts of a lone figure, as opposed to the wholesale warfare one might ordinarily expect of a picture deemed with such a grandiose premise. Such subject matter is wholly apt. It’s ‘alien’ in a number of ways. The film itself is an alien, with Glazer’s opus hiding in plain sight alongside the regular species known as cinema in multiplexes across the land. It’s as different as can be, for a film starring a mainstream star, and the lead actress of the third highest grossing film of all time (and one that deals with matters of the extra-terrestrial in a far more traditional way). That same actress is clearly an alien in the film’s Scottish locations, with the ultra-vérité of the film’s hidden camera approach quite literally placing her in amongst the real. Furthermore, it’s difficult not to look at Glazer’s story of a being from another planet and not think of the director’s own difficult relationship with the Hollywood film industry. Deeply affected by his own adventures on another planet, Glazer abandoned Hollywood and the cinema itself, here only returning to feature filmmaking nine years after Birth, and with a project firmly ground far away from the bright lights of Tinseltown.
With the removal of an emphasised narrative comes a direct emotional connection between the viewer and the picture. While delivered with nary an instance of exposition a beach-set sequence of perfectly orchestrated chaos strikes direct in the heart . Glazer also uses the film to subtly push his general thesis; by aiming for the lonely, Scarlett Johansson’s anonymous hunter avoids the concern of the masses (it’s only when an established family unit goes missing that we hear of incidents being reported by the media). The outsiders are a ‘safe’ target, but keep away from those loved by another. It’s with the sparing of one particular individual that plans begin to unravel, albeit in as abstract a way as one might expect given that said plans are never made explicitly clear to the viewer. Subtle shifts in Johansson’s performance indicate the shift, with her trademark white van abandoned in favour of pastures more rustic. Empathy is learned almost invisibly, as Glazer’s broken Pinocchio begins to show an interest in the real, taking leave of her post and even falling in love. But what is this thing called love to a being to whom such emotions nary register? Curiosity gives way to fear, and in turn wholesale personal abandonment. That these feelings are presented without glaring context or explanation is in itself almost alienating, with ones tools for devouring such things in clear need of realignment, in order to pick up the frequency of Glazer’s imagination.