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Film Review – Under the Skin

undertheskin

Under the Skin begins with total blackness and ends with a pure white sky. In between there is much greyness: the visual greys of its wintry Glasgow setting, the grey fog of confusion as the film withholds anything resembling plot exposition, and of course that most persistent of grey areas – the good old human condition.

Yes, on its surface this is a film about an alien who takes the form of Scarlett Johansson, trundles around in a white van searching for lonely men before luring them back to a house where they suffer a disturbing end in a black void of nothingness. But beneath its skin this is a film about us – our strangeness, our confusions, our potential for kindness.

As in Michel Faber’s source novel we perceive events through our visitor’s eyes. It’s a neat narrative ploy, and Glazer’s anxious voyeuristic style adds to the effect – helping us to see humanity from an otherworldly perspective. What emerges is a curious twist of the genre’s conventions: while most horror films revolve around a terrifying unknown that invades the safe world of normal human reality, in Under the Skin – through the eyes of an alien character – it is the human reality that gradually becomes a terrifying unknown, the human reality that besets the interloper, and the hunter who finally becomes the hunted.

At times it’s an uncomfortable watch, aided by a menacing score that scrapes away at the window. With dialogue kept to a minimum what we end up with is a muted experience of bodily angst – a film that puts the alien into alienation. As with Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, sexual desire is irredeemably entwined with death – blackness is constantly enveloping the characters both visually and literally, and our fleshy fragility is emphasised in a midway scene of memorable grisliness. But as the alien seductress stalks her prey, it is Glazer’s interwoven shots of wild landscapes and cruel oceans that begin to take on a truly sinister aspect. While our murderous guest begins to perceive, develop and change, Under the Skin refocuses on a brutal nature that continues to think and know nothing – and for that reason perhaps represents the ultimate horror.

But Glazer knows that humans are more than just bits of meat to be devoured by nature or sultry aliens. The film gives equal billing to our spiritual side, our ability to act altruistically, to feel pity and affection. Self-consciousness maybe an existential curse, but it is also what gives us our ethical dimension, and it’s a long pondering look into a mirror that starts the non-human Scarlett on a recognizably human road towards pain, redemption, and even a strange kind of love.

Under the Skin is perhaps more interesting than it is enjoyable. The pacing is uneven, and many will find it repetitive and frustratingly oblique. But even at its most ponderous (and some might say pretentious), there is an intensity that makes it hard to look away. This is a film that, like its protagonist, casts a coldly distant eye on humanity. And somewhere between the black and white of its first and final shots, somewhere in the greyness, it sees a vague outline of hope.

Image courtesy of filmpulse.net

Gareth Thornton

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