Film stars don’t often come to Arbroath. That was why, in the dead of winter in 2011, there was such a flurry of interest in the Angus press that Scarlett Johansson had been spotted shooting her new feature on the beach in Auchmithie, outside Arbroath.
Under the Skin, the film Johansson was making, is a wondrously odd and jarring affair, pitched between science fiction and observational documentary, between the exotic and the banal.
It includes both flesh-eating aliens and tea cakes, mind-bending cosmic imagery and down-to-earth footage of contemporary Scotland.
Finally completed almost a decade after its director Jonathan Glazer’s previous feature, Birth (2004), it confirms Glazer’s reputation as one of British cinema’s most idiosyncratic visionaries.
In spite of Johansson’s presence, the film is as far removed from the mainstream as the actress’s character is from her home planet. It plays like an experimental art installation on the very grandest scale.
The screenplay is adapted from Michel Faber’s novel but Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell have pared the novel down to its bones. They drain it of suspense by revealing the girl’s extraterrestrial origins right at the outset. Glazer doesn’t provide much in the way of back story. We know that Johansson’s alien girl preys on humans but we are not told why. Are the aliens starving and coming to earth to harvest humans because of their hunger, or do they regard human flesh as a delicacy? Why do they only go after men? A deliberately enigmatic film refuses to answer such questions.
Under the Skin has a spectacular, Stanley Kubrick-like overture in which we see Johansson come to earth. From a dot in the extreme distance, Glazer cuts to a huge close-up of a brown eyeball. A motorcyclist picks up a dead woman’s body from the roadside. Against a white backdrop, we see Johansson strip the woman whose skin she will inhabit.
Immediately afterward, in one of the film’s typical lurches from the sublime to the very mundane, Glazer shows us the character wandering incognito through a crowded shopping centre, browsing for a fur coat, make-up and lipstick. Much of the film was reportedly shot with hidden cameras. None of the other shoppers seem aware that Johansson is in their midst.
Johansson is a femme fatale in a white van. From the driver’s seat, she is looking out at a world that is new to her. She stares at men of every age, size and shape as they walk down the Glasgow streets. At these moments, she seems closer to an undercover film-maker or anthropologist researching a remote culture than she does to a predatory alien.
We see the girl drive the van through a crowd of Celtic fans leaving a football match. There is no particular direction in which she is going. “I am looking for the M8,” she tells one passer-by in her politely spoken, BBC newsreader-style voice as she cajoles him into her passenger seat and toward his doom. She manages to be flirtatious without showing any emotion toward or empathy for her victims. There isn’t much evidence of desire or hunger, either.
The girl’s manner remains entirely detached whether she is in a nightclub, stoning a man to death or performing a striptease by rote. Her emotional coolness makes her all the more alluring and intriguing to the men.
She doesn’t respond to changes in weather or the landscape. As we see her on motorways, in suburbs, in cities and in villages, in forests and on mist-shrouded hills in her pink cardigan, it sometimes seems as if Glazer wants to show us every aspect of Scottish rural and urban life. Even during the film’s most humdrum moments, the film-makers include rumbles and echoes on the soundtrack that help defamiliarise everyday scenes and settings. The music and sound effects are oddly reminiscent of Clangers, Oliver Postgate’s TV show for kids. Not that there is much obvious humour here. Glazer realises that if there was a hint that the storytelling was tongue in cheek, the spell would be utterly broken.
The naturalism of the scenes in which Johansson is driving across Scotland is contrasted with the ultra-stylised moments at which her victims find themselves engulfed in a dark, viscous fluid. It’s at these points that you remember Glazer’s background in advertising and those extravagantly strange Guinness commercials he once made, featuring surfers and white horses on the crest of huge waves.
There are longueurs here. Just as the alien girl meanders round Scotland, the script doesn’t have much sense of destination. Her pick-ups risk becoming repetitive. The lack of background information leaves audiences as much in the dark as the men the girl preserves in that gooey black jelly.
It’s Johansson, in a full-blooded and very brave performance, who gives the film its heart. For all the alien’s aloofness, she conveys her character’s increasing curiosity about the world around her and her desire to assimilate. We see her trying to eat human food (inevitably it makes her gag) and watching with bemusement a re-run of Tommy Cooper performing on TV. (Aliens may be strange but they’re nothing like as odd as British comedians.) Eventually, she even shows something close to tenderness.
Under the Skin has divided audiences since its festival premiere last autumn. Glazer has been accused of rank pretentiousness by some even as he has been wildly praised by others. This is the same response that was given to films like Bad Timing and The Man Who Fell to Earth by Nic Roeg, the British director to whom he now seems the natural successor.
Glazer shares Roeg’s formal boldness, visual imagination and his reckless willingness to tackle taboos. It is only to be hoped that, this time round, he doesn’t take 10 years to make another feature.