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UNDER THE SKIN

A visual stunner whose technical brilliance canít mask the fact that the proceedings are rambling and fatally undernourished from a narrative standpoint. I recommend the film, but with severe reservations.

The Package
     UNDER THE SKIN was based on a 2001 novel by Michael Faber about an alien in the body of an attractive woman who picks up men in rural Scotland and takes them to an underground factory that turns the corpses into alien chow. This 2013movie adaptation was directed and co-written by Englandís Jonathan Glazer, whose work only grows freakier with each passing film; 2000ís SEXY BEAST was a pleasingly eccentric thriller and Ď04ís BIRTH a deeply pervy art film, while UNDER THE SKIN far outdoes its predecessors in non-commercial weirdness.
     The film is also notable as the first-ever instance of full frontal nudity by Scarlett Johansson, a fact that by itself has rendered it a near-legend in some circles.

The Story
     In a remote shack in rural Scotland an alien garbed as an attractive brunette woman hits the road in a van. Cruising through Glasgow she picks up several unsuspecting men, all of whom she takes back to the shack, ostensibly for sex. Once inside the place, however, the guys are submerged in a lightless void where an unspecified something happens to them.
     The woman finds herself growing increasingly fascinated by the world sheís been thrust into, and evinces a most unexpected sense of compassion upon luring a freakishly deformed man into her van. She takes him back to the shed as usual, but allows the guy to escape--only to have him tracked down and killed by the womanís alien superior, who takes the form of a black leather clad biker.
     From there the woman either looses or abandons her truck on a country road and shacks up with a comely man. But her superior wonít hear of such a thing, and instigates a pursuit through the wilderness, at the end of which we learn the true meaning of the title.

The Direction
     Where does this film go wrong? Well, Iíd question the wisdom of revealing at the outset that the protagonist is an alien, something the Michael Faber novel wisely took its time to unveil. Furthermore, the novelís explanations (such as precisely what happens to the men that are lured to their death and why) and connective tissue have been completely stripped away, which robs the narrative of any real form or structure. It seems Jonathan Glazer was counting on his visual mastery to keep things afloat--and for the mesmerizing first 30 minutes it does.
     What Glazer provides is a superlative example of visual storytelling (with what little dialogue there is being largely incomprehensible, spoken as it is in heavy Scottish accents). The subtly oft-kilter wide shots of cinematographer Daniel Landin render the commonplace alien, as does Johnnie Burnís sound design, which among other things provides every scene with its own distinct ambiance.
     The lead performance of Scarlett Johansson is also instrumental to the filmís effectiveness, with a distant yet highly sexy and charismatic air (if the production notes are to be believed, most if not all of Johanssonís pick ups were filmed with actual passerby via hidden cameras)--and a good thing, as Johansson plays possibly the least sympathetic heroine in film history, callously leading numerous men to their death and at one point leaving an infant on a beach to starve to death and/or get swept away by waves.
     The net result of all this is a profound sense of otherworldly strangeness that may well be unsurpassed. From a purely atmospheric standpoint the film ranks with nightmarish classics like ERASERHEAD and STALKER (high praise indeed!), but in most other effects Iíd judge it a bit too much of a good thing. Watch a half hour of UNDER THE SKIN and youíll think youíre viewing a masterpiece of the freakish and bizarre, but at a full 108 minutes the effect is somewhat deadening.

 
Vital Statistics

UNDER THE SKIN
Film4/British Film Institute

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Producers: Nick Wechsler, James Wilson
Screenplay: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer
(Based on a novel by Michael Faber)
Cinematography: Daniel Landin
Editing: Paul Watts
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mckay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hadek, Roy Armstrong, Alison Chand, Ben Mills, Oscar Mills, Lee Fanning, Paul Brannigan
 

     

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