New on DVD is Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, as strange and unsettling a film as you will ever see. The visuals are nothing short of astounding, even gasp-inducing. Mica Levi’s music score will give you the creeps.
The story: A seductive young woman (Scarlett Johansson) drives a van around Glasgow, giving lifts to men she determines won’t be immediately missed. Her intention: luring them into an old house where they are…consumed? By the end, she (it?) seems to understand something about humans, might be acquiring empathy, could be having second thoughts about her life and mission. (Is she marooned on Earth? Is she some sort of queen “handled” by the men on motorcycles?) Glazer said of his film, “The body-soul thing, that paradox—the pleasure of consciousness and life and being in a body, and also how troubling it is and mystifying—is key in the film.”
In his April review, critic Richard Roeper called Under the Skin “by far the most memorable movie of the first few months of 2014. It’s as if the script for Species* had landed on Stanley Kubrick’s desk and he had decided to transform it into a stark mood piece that drills into your psyche and will stay there forever….I need to see this film again.” The movie mixes naturalism with the surreal, or as Jonathan Romney put it, its “nightmare mode.” The Huffington Post called it “a dark nightmare of images and sound, played out with perhaps the movies’ most alluring female star.”
Like the films of David Lynch, Under the Skin was not given a wide release, playing almost exclusively in one big city “art house.” In Philadelphia it was the Ritz East. Are suburbanites considered too plebeian for such movies? Is film distribution an imperfect science? Maybe it’s the R rating—exhibitors can’t make as much money from a film teens can’t see as from Captain America or Spider-Man.
Under the Skin is certainly not for all tastes. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to which it has been likened in its style and ambiguity, it will bore and perplex some while others will be entranced. (The ticket seller at the Ritz East told my party that older people think it’s “too weird” while young audiences “love it.”) Even if the filmmakers had nothing profound to say, the film nevertheless inspires a multitude of questions about humanity and in that sense is wholly rewarding. Slate.com was on target, concluding that “the film is bristling with ideas.”
This is only the third feature film from director Glazer. Like Under the Skin, Birth (2004), with Nicole Kidman, was not much seen . On the other hand, Sexy Beast (2000), a gangster saga with Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone, is held in high regard.
*Parallels with Species go only so far. In that 1995 film a message from space provided DNA sequencing that allowed humanity to create an alien whose goal they soon realize is to spawn deadly offspring. Species was an action film with its own debt to Them! , Alien, The Terminator and any film with chase and combat sequences in the Los Angeles sewers.
Jake Coyle. “Scarlett Johansson on Polarizing ‘Under the Skin’: ‘I Never Experienced Anything Like That’.” www.huffingtonpost (4/3/2014).
Jonathan Romney, “Unearthly Stranger,” Sight & Sound (April 2014): 22-24, 26-27.