Under The Skin - Blu-ray Review

'If Under The Skin is asking what it is to be human - a fact suggested at least in part by the dual meanings of its title - then there is a suggestion that the answer is not simple enough for Johansson's character to discover over a few days.'

Describing why Under The Skin is a good film is incredibly difficult when you break it down to the things that normally characterise a 'good film'. Johnathan Glazer's latest has little of what would normally be described as 'plot'. For long periods it consists solely of Scarlett Johansson driving around Scotland in a van. Her character is never named, neither is anyone else's in the film, in which she is the only real recognisable actor. Occasionally very bad things happen, such as a terrible scene on a beach, amongst others. There is very little dialogue and what there is is functional rather than flowery. Mica Levi's music is less a score, more an industrially-pitched assault. At the end, it is likely that you will have little idea of exactly what just happened.

If the above does not already suggest that there will be some audiences for whom Under The Skin is not a five-star film then allow this paragraph to express that explicitly. Ostensibly a Science-Fiction film, Glazer is uninterested in the mainstream connotations of that genre, rather in using something otherworldly to explore our view of things. Comparing it to Kubrick's 2001 does both films a disservice (Under The Skin is far more compelling, for one thing, and infinitely better paced), but the register of both is something similar: detached and delineated narratives that are more concerned with message than completing plot arcs, or rounding out protagonists.

So, what is Under The Skin 'about'? Johansson's character seems clearly to be exploring, something she initially completes through harsh experimentation and occasional violence, both things brought about by sexual temptation. Later she seems to take a different approach, encouraging a different level of interaction, with mixed results. There is absolutely a psycho-sexual undercurrent here; the men who think they are going to sleep with her meet uncertain, horrible conclusions. When she herself seeks to experience sex - as a result of these near encounters? - there seems to be confusion, dissatisfaction maybe, something made perhaps even more obvious by the film's finale, which goes a step further. If Under The Skin is asking what it is to be human - a fact suggested at least in part by the dual meanings of its title - then there is a suggestion that the answer is not simple enough for Johansson's character to discover over a few days. There is even the suggestion that to get close may be dangerous, both for her and for those she comes into contact with. Frequently throughout the narrative, characters disappear into the dark of Glazer's camera and Daniel Landin's photography, in a variety of contexts. Is that perhaps what it means to go off in search of what really makes us tick?

If that is what the film is about (and I'm not suggesting it with any certainty), then why exactly is the film so successful, especially if it arrives at no answers? Johansson herself is a large part of this. Clinical yet vulnerable, mysterious and sympathetic, her character is a magnetic North personal guide through human experience. Despite the violences she visits upon her prey (are they prey, or something else?) there is a pang of something it would be remiss to call humanity. Under Johansson's guidance her character is explicitly something more than that, something with the ability to be both us and to judge our efforts so far from some distance off, like some kind of benevolent God, in a white Ford Transit.

Johansson's detached and certain performance, delivered regularly sans dialogue, melds perfectly with Glazer's visuals and Levi's audio, making Under The Skin a true sensory production to behold. The dark of the film, which opens in barely visible Scottish countryside, is punctuated by light experiments and the gaudily lit everyday; a corner shop and the inside of Johansson's van. Perhaps not all of Glazer's experiments make sense, or appear eminently successful, but when the method is this compelling, how much does it matter? The mere fact that questions are being asked, and in this way, is enough to confirm a level of success, and then some. Judge it on how long it stays with you post-viewing. I, for one, still feel as though the answers it promises are tantalisingly, beautifully, out of reach.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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