“UNDER THE SKIN” (TIFF Movie Review)
There is a scene in director Jonathan Glazer’s unsettling and unusual masterpiece BIRTH where his camera hugs actress Nicole Kidman’s face as tightly as possible. In that sequence, we study Kidman’s porcelain visage as she watches an opera. Not one word of dialogue distracts us from her eyes, her lips, her skin. The character is clearly processing an idea—that a mysterious child may be the reincarnation of her dead husband—and that idea slowly evolves into an epiphany resulting in a single tear streaming from her rapidly reddening eye. It is without a doubt the single most alarming example of an actor’s “inner voice” in effect this critic has ever seen, and a majestic moment of “pure cinema,” uncompromising in its ambiguity and reliance on sound and image to make magic.
Glazer’s latest film, UNDER THE SKIN, is two hours of that scene garnished with some of the most arresting dark fantasy imagery ever lensed and coupled with urban grit, sexuality and an unforgettable performance by Scarlett Johansson as an alien vampire marauding across Scotland seducing her victims. This is bold, brave and wide-eyed filmmaking, a horror film by way of a 70s sci-fi picture and erotic, existential art house drama. There is very little dialogue and even less explanation, all the better to be seduced by its mystery. It is a film of great mystery, of beauty, sensuality and refined pulp fiction; like Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE by way of David Cronenberg’s RABID and Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE THE WRATH OF GOD. But really, this is just vintage Glazer and certainly a landmark film of intelligent, sophisticated contemporary surrealism.
Based on the bizarre, anti-romantic sci-fi novel by Michael Faber, Glazer irons out that book’s narrative into a work of wall-to-wall style and abrasive atonal music, with the frequently nude Johansson taking over the essence of a dead woman to become the sexual magnet she becomes. With the aid of her motorcycle riding “cleaners,” she stops men on the street, flirts with them and picks them up in remarkable scenes that are in fact legitimate set-ups; these men are by and large not actors and were in fact rightly duped by Johansson’s come-ons enough to get in her car, the encounters captured by carefully mounted hidden cameras. The result gives the film a blurred line between fact and phantasmagoria. When ScarJo/VampAlienGirl does bring her unlucky prey home, she strips them, and herself, leading them across a shimmering black surface. She glides effortlessly on that surface but they, under a kind of spell, sink deep within its depths, their penises defiantly erect. What happens to them below is horrifying, though just as elliptical and ambiguous as the rest of the picture is.
UNDER THE SKIN is a movie that truly defies articulation. It’s visceral; not violent or exploitative, but challenging and exotic. To attempt to talk at length about the twists it takes and the images that unspool within its running time would do its unique beauty a disservice. It will be a sharply divisive movie, no doubt. Many will hate it. The same numbers will worship it. I think it’s clear which side this critic falls for…