“Speculation about Under the Skin has remained intense ever since it missed its planned 2012 release,” noted the Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver a few days ago. “Every major film festival for the last two years has sought it for their lineup, and industry watchers have confidently predicted it would show up in successive Cannes, Sundances and Torontos.” Now it’s hit three overlapping festivals all at once, screening late Thursday at Telluride before jumping into the Competition in Venice on Tuesday and then rolling onto Toronto, where it’ll be a Special Presentation.
“The late Roger Ebert had long insisted that it didn’t matter what a film was about so much as how it’s about it,” notes William Goss at Film.com. “To wit, describing Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin as the tale of an alien (Scarlett Johansson) preying upon human males in the body of a woman might suggest an especially schlocky endeavor, a Scotland-set Species. Such a reductionist reading would do no justice to Glazer’s spare, surreal study of an outsider examining our world with a clinical fascination, driven by a cryptic purpose, more akin to David Bowie’s visitor in The Man Who Fell to Earth.” His score: 8.3 out of 10.
Glazer, no doubt, would be glad to hear it. As producer James Wilson told the Observer‘s Vanessa Thorpe a couple of weeks ago, one reason Under the Skin has been so long in coming is that “Jonathan really wanted to get certain elements of this story right. He wanted to get across the way that an alien might look at our culture, rather like we look at animals, and it took time to work this out.”
Variety‘s Scott Foundas isn’t buying it. He calls Under the Skin “an undeniably ambitious but ultimately torpid and silly tale… Very loosely based on Michael Faber’s acclaimed 2001 novel, here reduced nearly to the point of abstraction, the pic strenuously attempts to show us the world through ‘alien eyes’ but ends up seeming rather like a feature-length Candid Camera show where, instead of being punk’d, contestants get swallowed up by a mass of intergalactic goo.”
But that’s just what Chris Willman likes about it. He gives the film a B+ at the Playlist: “Glazer wisely spends much of the first half of the film giving us montages of Johansson picking up strangers, without a clue as to how the seat next to her became empty before her next hunting expedition. When we do finally get a glimpse of what happens to the victims after Johansson lures them to her would-be boudoir, the film suddenly sheds its local color and naturalism and takes us just far enough into the alien lair to quietly offer some of the creepiest imagery you’re likely to see in any movie this year. It’s in these disturbingly shiny scenes where Glazer’s background as a director in the pre-YouTube era of music videos comes through, to nightmare-inducing effect.”
“Making his feature debut in 2000 with Sexy Beast, Glazer hasn’t made a film in some nine years, since the 2004 Nicole Kidman-starring Birth,” notes Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times. “Though not well regarded on its initial release, that film has grown in stature over time, not least because of Alexandre Desplat’s haunting score and the late Harris Savides‘s remarkable cinematography. This time out Glazer is working with cinematographer Daniel Landin, who has collaborated with Glazer on his music video work, as well as the young multi-instrumentalist and composer Mica Levi.”
“A totally wacky head-trip with midnight movie sensibilities and a daring avant-garde spirit, Glazer’s movie is ultimately too aimlessly weird to make its trippy narrative fully satisfying,” finds Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, “but owes much to Johansson’s intense commitment to a strangely erotic and unnerving performance unlike anything she has done before.”
In a similar vein, HitFix‘s Gregory Ellwood writes that Glazer has “fashioned an original piece of cinema that is gorgeous, mesmerizing, heartbreaking, frustrating and pretentious all at the same time. It has some of the most haunting images of the year and features the bravest performance of Scarlett Johansson’s career.”
Update, 9/1: “I found the film quite impressive, but baffling, which I think is intentional,” writes David Cairns. Under the Skin “depends more on imagery and eerie music and sound design than on narrative, character development or dialogue. It was particularly nice to see it in the US where 90% of the dialogue, delivered in strong Glasgow patois, must have been entirely incomprehensible…. Johanssen is good—very intriguing—but the film doesn’t allow us to understand her motivations. Glazer talked about wanting to show the world through alien eyes, but because the plot is so obscure, it’s perhaps more a case of watching an alien through human eyes.”
Updates, 9/2: “Once she meets a man, Laura [Johansson] brings him back to her flat, where in a highly stylized ritual she walks a few paces ahead of her victims, stripping her clothes an article at a time as the men do the same,” explains John Horn in the Los Angeles Times. “But for every step the men take, they start submerging into a viscous black liquid, until they are fully engulfed in a black void from which there is no escape.” Glazer’s approach: “Johansson would climb into a van equipped with an array of hidden video cameras, each about the size of a pack of cigarettes. As she cruised around Glasgow, where the actress was rarely recognized, she would try to persuade strangers to climb in the passenger seat, just as if she were the character she was playing. If the men were willing, they would later be informed that they had unwittingly joined a movie and would be asked to sign a release. The men seen entering the black void were nonprofessionals whom Glazer cast separately. The point of the subterfuge, Glazer said, was to present the real world as an alien might see it. ‘I wanted it to feel like you were witnessing something,’ the British director said. ‘What you are watching is what happened—I wanted her to interfere with the world.'”
Meantime, a teaser’s appeared today:
Updates, 9/3: “The film it initially recalls is Bertrand Tavernier‘s Death Watch,” suggests David Jenkins at Little White Lies, “particularly as it too offers a rather unflattering portrait of a rain-sodden Glasgow, but also in that both films transplant the malformed skin of a genre movie onto a narrative body that’s entirely motivated by futuristic philosophical ideas. There’s a sense, too, that the world both films represent is on the verge of some kind of apocalyptic reckoning, and Glasgow (poor Glasgow!) seems to encapsulate humankind at its most debased, feckless and decadent.”
“Johansson is nothing short of iconic here,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin: “her character is a classic femme fatale in the film noir tradition, down to the plump red lips and deep fur coat, but with a refrigerated nothingness at her core. She looks at her fellow cast members as if they are from another planet—which is, of course, exactly as it should be. Even the Scottish landscape looks alien: dawn mist rolls across lochs like curls of space dust. Glazer’s astonishing film takes you to a place where the everyday becomes suddenly strange, and fear and seduction become one and the same. You stare at the screen, at once entranced and terrified, and step forward into the slick.”
“Under the Skin is far and away the best picture in the competition so far,” declares the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “Slice it open and one realizes that Under the Skin is actually a hybrid of two hackneyed film genres. It’s indebted on the one side to the psychosexual horror movie in which feckless, lusty youths receive their comeuppance and, on the other, to those fish-out-of-water capers (like E.T., or even Splash) about kooky visitors from the wide blue yonder. And yet the director works a magic on this material. He takes tired old prose and spins it into poetry.”
“It’s an intoxicating marvel, strange and sublime,” agrees Time Out London‘s Dave Calhoun. “It’s a serious, often bleak film—a scene of a family faced with drowning is the film’s most horrific moment—but a wry humor stops it taking itself too seriously. It’s a story of a predator becoming prey, and it asks us to look at our world again with something like the fresh eyes of the martian poetry of Craig Raine, although that element of the film isn’t too labored. Perhaps more interestingly, it offers some provocative sideways views on seduction, sexual power and its abuse. Daring and thoughtful.”
Updates, 9/4: “Now that it has finally debuted, it appears that in the end Glazer simply gave up on trying to find a cohesive story,” sighs Kaleem Aftab in the Independent.
But for the Playlist‘s Oliver Lyttelton, “it’s certainly the best film in Venice competition so far, and one of the best movies of the year. And we felt so damn enthusiastic about Under the Skin that we decided to run down five of the reasons that we believe it’s one of the must-see films of 2013.” They follow.
Updates, 9/5: Jay Kuehner for Cinema Scope: “The montage sequences in which Johansson’s resident alien stalks the streets are suffused with sufficient voyeuristic pleasure, abetted by Daniel Landen’s fine, charcoaled camerawork, but are floated without determined weight—she’s more gawker than stalker. Such vacuity could reflect the vague interface occasioned by the human/alien encounter, but weightlessness is something that more searching filmmakers have endeavored to conjure and shape from less far-out scenarios. This is cutaneous filmmaking, for those who are tempted to hitch a ride and plunge into the unctuous abyss of such apparitions.”
“Under the Skin is ultimately a bit too enamored of its own elusiveness,” suggests Jon Frosch in the Atlantic.
At Cineuropa, Domenico La Porta has three questions for Glazer.
Update, 9/7: “The film is unapologetically its own thing,” writes Shane Danielsen at Indiewire. “It makes no concessions either to audience or commercial expectations. It demands to be experienced rather than understood…. Flawed, the film might be, and undeniably troubled in its making. (Later, watching the press conference, I sensed no deep affection between the director and his lead actress, Scarlet Johansson.) But whatever its difficulties in delivery, the result is intensely, mesmerizingly cinematic, a reconciliation of formalist innovation, boundless craft—Grazer is nothing if not a consummate technician—and something else, more mysterious and much harder to define, but which is far closer to poetry than prose.”
Update, 9/11: “Like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve, “Under the Skin is one of those movies that’s going to last past festival season and award season and through all the cycles of ‘masterpiece’/’overrated’ that become so tedious by the time Oscar night rolls around. It’s a classic.”
“This is hardly the first film to observe an alien encountering strange customs, but it may be the first that seems conceived from that perspective formally as well as dramatically,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club.
Updates, 9/12: The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy finds Under the Skin “more pictorially arresting than intellectually coherent.”
The Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth interviews Glazer.
Updates, 9/14: “Species directed by the Antonioni of Red Desert,” suggests Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “As a portrait of consumption in inner and outer spaces, Under the Skin is simultaneously direct in its metaphoric implications and as crazily prismatic as Holy Motors. It can be as trying as it is striking, but I don’t plan on forgetting it any time soon.”
Updates, 9/17: “Anthropological and austere, Under the Skin is an intentionally alienating experience for much of the first two-thirds, before its central character goes incrementally native and places herself in danger,” writes Josef Braun. “All dialogue is virtually incidental and much of Johansson’s performance is designed to remain remote, but the film isn’t anywhere near as baffling as some reports have made it out to be. It is a hugely inventive story about a stranger in a strange land and the perils of empathy.”
“Critics are having a hard time pinning down exactly what Under the Skin is trying to say,” notes Tina Hassannia at the House Next Door, “if it’s saying anything at all, but the film undeniably deconstructs female sexuality in relation to masculine power, and the baffling nature of that relationship.”
Updates, 9/19: “Equal parts puzzling and exhilarating,” writes Kenji Fujishima at In Review Online, “Under the Skin is the kind of heady sci-fi trip that has the enigmatic power to both provoke intellectual arguments and also, on a more visceral level, permanently burn images into your mind’s eye and haunt your dreams.”
“Under the Skin is a great many things, often contradictory, the exasperating and annihilating alternating side-by-side,” writes Patrick Z. McGavin at Filmjourney.org. “Personally I could have done with less of the severe disassociation. The tradeoffs, Johansson’s performance, the score (Mica Levi) and the voluptuous, sinister visual rhyming, offer more than compensatory thrills.”
Update, 9/22: A fuller trailer:
Update, 10/23: “The clear implication of Laura’s intergalactic tourist act is that the film is metaphorically examining the experience of being an alien in terms of its more earthly definition,” writes James Rocarols in the Critic’s Notebook. “Laura’s experience is completely analogous to those of any migrant, as she desperately tries to navigate the cultural peculiarity of Scotland by second-guessing the desires of enigmatic males. Like many newcomers, she’s forced by unseen powers to resort to the sex trade, but she plans to her use body as an assimilative tool, absorbing aspects of her conquests in order to assume an understanding of her host country…. Ultimately it’s the film’s incessantly unnerving air that impresses the most. In a handful of scenes Mr. Glazer creates a strangely dislocated tone of indifferent, inhuman callousness that’s haunting, unsettling and completely his own.”
Updates, 3/30: “Glazer, who cut his teeth making commercials and music videos that often likened man to machine and fixated on the musculature of the body, and whose Sexy Beast thugs, like Denis Lavant in UNKLE’s ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights,’ seemed as if they wanted nothing more than to rip their flesh off, clearly found kinship in Faber’s bold articulation of physical displacement and existential unease.” Four out of four stars from Slant‘s Ed Gonzalez.
In the New York Times, Nicolas Rapold places Under the Skin within the context of “a certain tradition of science fiction as head trip pioneered in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Updates, 4/3: “The extraordinary achievement of Under the Skin is that while Laura develops some human qualities, Glazer resists the temptation to turn this alien’s story into the story of what it means to be human,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve. “The film becomes less jarring as it goes along, but it’s still about a creature who has trouble comprehending pop music, sitcoms, cake, or sex. Under the Skin is an exercise in identifying with the unknowable, and its ultimate conclusion is that while some acclimation is attainable, it’s never a clean fit.”
For Melissa Anderson, writing for Artforum, Under the Skin “works best conceptually not as a sci-fi parable but as a tweak of Johansson’s celebrity.” As she “mingle[s] among actual Glaswegians… her allure is no longer presupposed but has to be proven. And in this, Johansson does some of her finest acting yet.”
Writing for Film Comment, Jonathan Romney agrees that “Glazer’s chosen method of filming elicits a singular and fascinating performance from Johansson, who here displays an ordinariness—itself part of the alien’s disguise—and an intensity of in-the-moment presence and nerve-ending alertness that she doesn’t often get the chance to display.”
For Benjamin Mercer at the L, “somewhat unexpectedly, the film is not most squirm-inducing as annihilative takeover horror but rather as a record of nervous gestures, in which strangers fidget toward doomed intimacy.”
“Along with his actors, cinematographer Daniel Landin, and composer Mica Levi, [Glazer’s] made a work of quiet audaciousness, half-soothing, half-jolting,” writes Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice. “This is a dream-state movie that’s always fully awake and alive.”
But for Time‘s Richard Corliss, “Under the Skin is handsome, in a dour way, but inert—a cunning experiment that died in the shooting or on the editing table.”
Hillary Weston interviews Glazer for BlackBook.
Updates, 4/4: “It’s a film out of its time,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. “Its time, I think, is the 1970s, when directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) and Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) made viscerally intense features whose subjective visuals and sound effects and music, and dissociative, even poetic editing turned the story, such as it was, into an abstract experience. Certain modern filmmakers still work in this mode occasionally—the Iranian director Abbas (A Taste of Cherry) Kiarostami, for one; definitely not the sort of name you tend to see associated with films about buxom otherworldly creatures who lure men to their doom, but hey. As you watched all those films, you thought about what they were trying to say, or what they ‘meant,’ or on a much simpler level, what the heck was happening from one minute to the next. And after at a certain point you realized that on its simplest level the movie was saying: ‘Here is an experience that’s nothing like yours, and here are some images and sounds and situations that capture the essence of what the experience felt like; watch the movie for a couple of hours, and when it’s over, go home and think about what you saw and what it did to you.'”
Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir argues that “the sporadic bits of talk in Under the Skin are sound rather than information. This might sound like an outrageous comparison, but it reminds me of the way Charlie Chaplin began to use sound in his films, once he finally realized he had to. This stark and intensely controlled film is the work of a powerful visual stylist and storyteller, one who looks like he belongs on the short list of directors who have carried the narrative methods of the silent era deep into modern cinema: Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Terrence Malick, Andrea Arnold.”
Kubrick is name-checked in Mark Lukenbill‘s review at Hammer to Nail as well: “However, Under the Skin might have more in common with roguish French auteur Leos Carax, whose muse, the actor/acrobat Denis Lavant, Glazer worked with on UNKLE’s infamous ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights‘ video as well as an absurd, giallo-inspired candy bar commercial. The ingenuity of the film in the doc-style sequences is mostly sprung from the necessity of a smaller budget, as is the case more with Carax than Kubrick, and Glazer shares both Carax’s hypnotically immersive visual imagination as well as his tendency to photograph his subjects in front of monochromatic backdrops.”
“The movie’s eerie, climactic image challenges our conventional notions of human identity and leaves us reflecting on the possibility that every being in the universe is an alien in disguise,” writes Stephen Holden in the New York Times.
Updates, 4/5: In the Notebook, Ryland Walker Knight notes that “the majority of the first half of the film is this not-Scarlett driving a van around Scotland, looking—in effect, cruising. In what I can only understand as an inheritance from Abbas Kiarostami, Glazer roots this ‘cruising’ sequence of the film in a largely static mise-en-scene of blunt actuality. When not focused on Johansson from one of the artful-odd angles around the cab of the van, the cameras train their gaze out the windshield or passenger window on everyday people, one after another, the car’s movement rhyming with slight pans to create a predatory vibe in this the roving documentary of Northern Scotland’s streets, highways, nights, thick brogues.”
“Glazer seems to want to impart some lesson with his story of men who are willing to go to the home of a woman they don’t know, and who die as a result,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “The movie would run entirely differently, or not at all, if the aliens had the idea to disguise one of their crew as a man. Glazer doesn’t have much trouble stigmatizing desire, but he doesn’t have much to say about how it gets stoked.”