I watched Michael Glazer’s Under the Skin last weekend.
There’s been tons of hype and preamble about this film and the unorthodox filming/acting style, which allegedly involved Scarlett Johansson tooling around insalubrious areas of Glasgow and propositioning unsuspecting male members of the public; for that alone, it had to be worth a watch as a lot of Scots have an inbuilt ability for self-reflexive scorn, to see ourselves as other see us, but only if it’s risible…I’m joking a bit here, but my reaction to Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share was at odds with the popular reaction. People loved it; I thought it was a terribly un-Loach like celebration of dishonesty and stupidity – our heroes were thieves, albeit “sticking it to the man,” and the biggest laughs were at the expense of the character who was so out of it he didn’t know what year it was. Amazing that it was from the same director who would have been working concurrently on The Spirit of ’45, which is bursting with decency and compassion and should be required viewing in schools.
Anyway, back to Under the Skin; as far as I could see, all the schock/horror fanfare of Johansson’s uber-method has been over-played, possibly regionally, to drum up interest; if there is real interaction beween her and any civilians, it’s indistinguishable from that between her and the professional actors. Driving around the outskirts of Glasgow in the middle of the night or walking through a mobbed shopping centre doesn’t really constitute kicking down the fourth (or fifth) wall.
So it is all the more gratifying that Johansson’s performance transcends all the guff and preamble. Avoiding spoilers, she plays an alien who appears to be (and this is all delightfully unexplained in the script) trying to understand human life for an unstated purpose; unfortunately for the conquests of the femme fatale persona the alien employs, this also involves stealing the life forces of several humans along the way.
It’s an extraordinary performance; the sense of alien-ness, of the other which Johansson communicates by, well, acting is deeply unsettling; this is more the Johansson who was “lost in translation” (a fitting, literal description of our alien’s position in Under the Skin) than the muse of some of Woody Allen’s least inspired work.
The film is ultimately about “other-ness” and the alien almost becomes a metaphor for “other-ness” – again, I’m trying to avoid spoilers or discussion of the plot. Pauline Kael famously claimed never to watch a film more than once, which is a rule which may have its virtue. Personally, I’ll be going to watch Under the Skin again very soon as I believe there are layers which are perhaps not immediately apparent…