TIFF13: Under the Skin (2013)

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is quite simply one of the most daring and provocative films to feature a major Hollywood star (Scarlett Johansson) in some time. Glazer’s long awaited follow-up to Sexy Beast and Birth, is the kind of film that lingers in the mind long after viewing it, both for its haunting atmosphere and for the themes and questions it explores.

A simple plot description of the film doesn’t suffice to prime the viewer for what exactly they are in store for, so I will allow many of the film’s surprises to unfold for the viewer despite being given away in many descriptions of the novel by Michel Faber by which Glazer was inspired. In short, Johansson plays a beautiful young woman who stalks the back roads of Scotland in a white van with a predatory impulse, luring the various young men whom she picks up to an uncertain fate. Her reasons for doing so start out unclear, but as they are revealed her own motivation and the motivation for the film unfold in a strangely dual form.

Obviously Johansson was cast in part for her striking physical beauty (those uncomfortable with fairly explicit, though never exploitive, nudity in film – both male and female – best stay away). But Johansson embodies her character’s cold and focused sexuality in a way that is hardly sensual, instead exploring a dark, primal aspect of the relation between men and women in a way that reverses many of our cultural and societal expectations very deliberately. The result is a performance that makes or breaks the film, and Johansson delivers on the promise.

Comparisons to Kubrick and even Hitchcock (particularly Vertigo) are understandable. The film has a cool sense of control, but it is also experimental, more focused on creating a feeling through its abandonment of a driving narrative arc than anything either director ever created (2001 included). Glazer said in the Q&A after the film that he was inspired by a sense or feeling that he got from the novel, more so than its plot and that shows. The excellent ambient soundscape and coolly propulsive score by Mica Levi enhance the film’s striking atmosphere.

Under the Skin’s title could describe the film’s effect upon the viewer willing to engage with the film. While immediately afterwards I was more intellectually, rather than viscerally, taken with the film, its lingering effect strikes me as proof of the films success. Perhaps the best compliment is that I’m eager to revisit the film and once again experience its unsettling and distancing exploration of human nature.

8 out of 10

Under the Skin (2013, UK)

Directed by Jonathan Glazer; screenplay by Glazer and Walter Campbell based on the novel by Michel Faber; starring Scarlett Johansson.

Under the Skin plays Sept. 9, 10 and again on the 15th during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations programme.