5 Reasons Why Jonathan Glazer's 'Under The Skin' Is One Of The Best Films Of The Year

by Oliver Lyttelton
September 4, 2013 10:45 AM
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This morning saw the first official press screening of "Under The Skin," the first new film in nine years from "Sexy Beast" and "Birth" helmer Jonathan Glazer, which premieres officially at the Venice Film Festival tonight. But as you'll know if you were reading over the weekend, the film's already been unveiled across the Atlantic as part of the line-up at the Telluride Film Festival.

Playlist correspondent Chris Willman saw and liked the film, an adaptation of the novel by Michel Faber which stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien creature seducing and killing men in Scotland, in Telluride, saying that "a cult audience with a penchant for SF morality tales may warm to this chilly girl-who-fell-to-earth story." But we saw the film this morning in Venice, and we fell a lot harder for it: 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, ahead of its screenings at TIFF and, hopefully before too long, its general release. Check the reasons out below.

1. It marks the wholehearted return of Jonathan Glazer
"Under The Skin" director Jonathan Glazer is something of a legend in the commercials world, having been behind some of the most artful ads of the last few decades, including the Guinness surfing ad scored to Leftfield's "Phat Planet," and the Sony Xperia promo set to Jose Gonzalez's "Heartbeats." Not every filmmaker transitions from short-form to features successfully, but Glazer came up with a stellar debut with 2000's "Sexy Beast." Four years later, he returned with "Birth," starring Nicole Kidman, a strange, unclassifiable, but deeply wonderful film that didn't find the audience or critical reception it deserved at the time, but which has gone on to be something of a cult favorite. It's taken a long time (there were a few false starts with financing, and the film had a long post-production period of nearly two years), but it's certainly worth the wait. If the premise makes it sound like Glazer's sold out and made a commercial horror/sci-fi genre picture, you couldn't be more wrong—this is the filmmaker at his most experimental and unfiltered, with stunning images that of all three of his films to date, is most reminiscent of his unforgettable commercials work (more on this below). But he's not just a visual stylist—the performances, not just from Johansson, but from her lesser-known co-stars, are rich and utterly convincing. And like "Birth," it seems chilly on the surface, but is bursting with feeling underneath. The film was always likely to divide people, but hopefully it'll have enough supporters to ensure that we don't have to wait as long for Glazer's fourth film.

2. It's not quite like anything you've seen.
It's not that "Under The Skin" is entirely absent of reference points—plenty of wags have brought up the "Species" comparison in advance, and since it screened, more than one person has brought up "The Man Who Fell To Earth" (not unfair, though if we're taking Bowie, "Loving The Alien" seems like an equally appropriate choice). They're fair comparisons, certainly, but to us, "Under The Skin" felt like its own beast. If anything, it fits neatly into the recent run of oddball, psychedelic sci-fi films like "Beyond The Black Rainbow" and "Upstream Color"—from its opening moments, the film is packed to the gills with unique, unsettling images, and strikes an ominous, unsettling tone. Like those two earlier films, it might enervate those who want clear answers and traditional storytelling, neither of which even remotely interest Glazer here. But as a mood piece and a puzzle box, it works like gangbusters, and we’ve been picking over the film almost continuously in the 24 hours since we’ve seen it, and are dying to go back for another immersion in its world.

3. It features some of the most striking images of the year.
If you know Glazer’s previous work, be it short-form or feature-length, you won’t be surprised to learn that “Under The Skin” is positively stacked with unforgettable images. The man who brought us horses in the surf and Sexy Beast’s demonic rabbit creature knows how to deliver an indelible picture, and if anything, he excels himself here with a film that comes closer to his commercials work in look and feel that the Kubrickian qualities of “Birth.” The opening images, unexplained and abstract, feel like something from “2001” as a glowing circle travels through the darkness, forming into an eye over the words “Film, film, film.” We still don’t know quite what to make of it, but it’s a fascinating note on which to open on. And from there, Glazer mixes an almost kitchen-sink naturalism as Johansson’s character makes her way through the streets of Glasgow, and bold, out-there glimpses of the weirdness under the surface. Two in particular—one early on, as two of her captors come face to face, the other at the very end as her true guise is revealed—have genuinely haunted us since we’ve seen it. DoP Daniel Landin doesn't have many feature credits to his name—horror "The Uninvited" and gangster tale "44-Inch Chest" being the most notable, though he has a long history with Glazer in promos—but the Gordon Willis-like way he shoots in near-complete darkness alone will surely put him in high demand. It’s the kind of film you dream of once it’s done, and we can’t think of a higher recommendation than that.

4. Scarlett Johansson gives the performance of her career.
The film’s star is the kind of actress who’s perhaps never quite gotten her due, inspiring a disproportionate amount of negativity from those who’ve taken against her. It’s true that, with the wrong material, or without a director who knows how to deploy her properly, Johansson can come across as flat, but you’d think that twelve years after “Ghost World,” and with “Lost In Translation,” “Match Point,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “The Avengers” and “Don Jon” under her belt, she’d get a little more credit. But we suspect that even the haters will be coming on board after “Under The Skin,” because she’s quite, quite astonishing in the film. She has to carry the entire film on her shoulders (she’s almost the only recognizable face in the film, Glazer cannily contrasting her megastar status against actors from Ken Loach films or even non-pros to emphasize the sense of an otherworldly being walking among us), and does it without breaking a sweat. To begin with, she’s robotic and predatory, a sexual Terminator stalking the streets for targets, but able to deftly sweet to a flirty doe-eyed temptress, carefully working out which of the men of Glasgow are likely to be missed the least. But over time, she softens, she starts to develop her humanity—most notably in an extraordinary scene where she picks up a deformed man—and Johansson's subtly expressive features beautifully put this across as she finds new curiosity, new fears, and new despair in the human world. It's also a very physical performance—the title is quite deliberate, and there's almost a Cronenbergian fascination with the human body at play—and Johansson is game and fearless to do whatever Glazer has asked her to do. It's not the kind of turn that will ever attract awards attention, at least outside the festival circuit: the film's too esoteric, and the performance too subtle, for that. But it is the kind that is destined to be one of an actor's best remembered, especially years down the line. 

5. The score is weird and wonderful.
Even if "Birth" wasn't necessarily appreciated at first, the score, by Alexandre Desplat, helped popularize him with U.S. filmmakers, and he's now perhaps the most in demand composer working. If there's any justice, "Under The Skin" will do the same for Mica Levi. The 26-year-old Londoner, classically trained but best known as frontwoman of acclaimed experimental pop band Micachu & The Shapes, is a first-time composer for film, but you wouldn't know it from the finished product, because it's something very special indeed. Often, a score will merely be the cherry on top of a film (we don't necessarily mean that in a derogatory way), but Levi's work is positively ingrained in the very fabric of the film, and it's impossible to imagine it without it. Rhythmic, often drone-like, otherworldly and often terrifying, it, like the film as a whole, doesn't quite sound like anything else. Levi's known for creating her own musical instruments, and we'd be very surprised if that wasn't the case here, as there are sounds that, to our ears, don't appear to be human in origin. It's perfect for the film, and we look forward to listening to it both solo and in the context of the movie.

On page 2, a brief Q&A with the director from Venice and a few clips of Johansson and Glazer speaking from Venice.

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  • Erick | March 26, 2014 2:11 AMReply

    Just saw the movie, lamest movie ever!!! That's it...

  • Erick | March 26, 2014 2:11 AMReply

    Just saw the movie, lamest movie ever!!! That's it...

  • Erick | March 26, 2014 2:11 AMReply

    Just saw the movie, lamest movie ever!!! That's it...

  • Erick | March 26, 2014 2:11 AMReply

    Just saw the movie, lamest movie ever!!! That's it...

  • Adam | September 27, 2013 8:36 PMReply

    A movie about a woman killing men.
    A movie that portrays a woman killing men with impunity with sympathy.
    There are always filmmakers who imagine this narrative trope is original and groundbreaking and speaks to a subtext of feminist empowerment, or woman's empowerment or some such rationale where the female killer of men is somehow justified on the usual grounds like men have it coming to them, or the well worn narrative thread that only serves of men as caricatures along the lines of brutes, abusers, and other amoral characters. Were there a movie about a man killing women as its main motivation there is no doubt that is such a killer is portrayed, (alien or not) with a hint of humanity or empathy, the feminist groups would be out in full force to denounce the film and the filmmakers as promoting misogyny and encouraging violence against women through a lens of entertainment.

    What strikes me about the review of this film is the casual acceptance of a narrative that has at its core a female who kills men, most likely without consequence and accountability. By implication the reviewers praise Johansson's performance because we all know how challenging it is to play a sadistic killer of men. Of course its now customary to have films where the value of a man's life is zero unless that life is in the service of mindless deference to the desires, wishes and motivations of female characters. The irony here is that the film follows a well worn narrative path that plays on the familiar, if you want to indicate a male villain have him mistreat women, and if you want to indicate a strong female heroine have her mistreat men.

    Certainly much of the contemporary audiences for this film will predictable defend the movie's premise and the man-killing protagonist because this line of storytelling is very frequent and accepted as a valid expression of artistic originality. No one questions the double-standard and I expect there are plenty of people who will ridicule those who do.

    Comically, there a people who reference great films like "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and others of a similar vein, which is odd since these films do not feature aliens who embark on gender specific killing sprees. The reviewer does state that Under the Skin is its own beast, really? A movie about an attractive female character seducing and killing men, a movie which continues the cinema trope of male characters as caricatures without value who serve only as disposable material to empower the female characters, a movie that pats itself on the back for an originality that isn't original at all.

    On a final note , let's be honest. Johansson is surely one of the most entitled, fawned over, superficial actresses of the modern era. She's constantly raised for her beauty and intelligence to near supernatural dimensions. So is it surprising critics fall over themselves to raise her to new and more ludicrous heights of worship? Personally, and speaking only for myself, I'm not interested in seeing a movie whose main narrative device is about a sympathetic portrayal of another woman that seduces and kills men.

  • Pierre | September 12, 2013 5:00 PMReply

    My body is ready.

  • TED | September 12, 2013 11:28 AMReply

    What I have read about this film not only calls The Man Who Fell to Earth to mind but also The Brother From a Different Planet.

  • MDL | September 11, 2013 9:39 PMReply

    I've been told that this film takes an element from the 24 min Twilight Zone "Black Leather Jackets" episode and stretches it over a couple hours. Just so you know, if true, it's been done before. One difference seems to be Scarlett Johansson in the nude rather than dude's on motorcycles.

  • Francesca | September 7, 2013 10:46 AMReply

    "Never, ever, ever, ever judge a film on whether or not it was booed at a festival. There's a certain contingent of European critics who'll boo anything remotely challenging".

    Actually the only movie that has been booed heavily in Venice by critics this year is this one. Tsai Ming-liang's movie is way more challenging (and beautiful) and got only warm applauses.

  • crazyxcrazy | September 5, 2013 7:09 PMReply

    "Scarlett Johansson gives the performance of her career"

    maybe but Michelle Williams would have been better

  • Greg W. Locke | September 5, 2013 5:20 PMReply

    The trailer gives off a Nic Roeg vibe.

  • triguous | September 5, 2013 3:59 AMReply

    6. It's good... ?

  • DON LOGAN | September 4, 2013 9:00 PMReply

    i just saw the trailer
    looks like a david lynch film

  • Gene | September 4, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away

  • Glass | September 4, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Thanks for this writeup! I'm so happy to hear Glazer pulled it off. Now, let's see a release date soon...

  • Lou | September 7, 2013 6:59 AM

    Oliver, some times 'challenging' means 'trying'. At Venice the public seldom boos when the author is present. I feel that probably also film critics are starting to have enough of typical festival films, with blank, emotionless characters who cryptically ponder over nobody knows what and stare at the void for 15 or so minutes to signify profoundness, with no regard for the cinematic tempo. I am sorry for Johansson. She is by no means a bad actress. I think she should tackle sophisticated comedy (if they are still being made). In Scoop - one of Allen's least successful endeavours - she was the very soul of the film, much more so than in Match Point or Vicky, Christina, Barcelona.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | September 5, 2013 12:55 PM

    Never, ever, ever, ever judge a film on whether or not it was booed at a festival. There's a certain contingent of European critics who'll boo anything remotely challenging.

  • Lou | September 5, 2013 11:05 AM

    It does not seem that Glazer really pulled it off, since it was the most heavily booed film by critics and audience alike at Venice. I too, like Lyttleton, suspect the film will not attract much attention in the normal circuit, except perhaps for the many integral-nude scenes with Johansson, whose level of eroticism in the film, according to some of the critics, is next to zero. Well, I suppose, that is a feat. Probably the performance is too subtle?

  • Henry | September 4, 2013 1:29 PMReply

    I can give you one reason why this movie sucks: Scarlett Johansson. Don't expect Oscars coming her way anytime soon.

  • Gene | September 4, 2013 4:24 PM

    Though this isn't her finest, she does have some good roles when she's playing sort of an everyday person, like Ghost World. Or Lost in Translation. I liked her in The Nanny Diaries and The Avengers as well, but things like The Other Boleyn Girl, The Spirit, Match Point and this is where I feel she can't perform.

  • The Ringer | September 4, 2013 2:42 PM

    Can't agree more. She just sucks the life out of everything.

  • Frank | September 4, 2013 1:32 PM

    I concur. The only reason critics will like her here is because she hardly talks. If she did, it would probably be significantly worse than the crap it already is.

  • sorcerer | September 4, 2013 11:40 AMReply

    No write up on sorcerer yet huh? Fuck this shit.

  • fuck you | September 4, 2013 2:22 PM

    yeah totally,why would you see a movie that you've already seen. no one has ever done that. no one goes to see restored movies,fuck had no idea. thanks for you're input but fuck you.

  • Give it Up Already, Dude | September 4, 2013 12:06 PM

    Dudes, it's the exact same version only cleaned up/restored. Why would they go see a movie they've essentially already seen?

  • SHEYLA | September 4, 2013 11:23 AMReply

    Take attention to Marion Cotillard's performance on The Immigrant, it's wonderful

  • oogle monster | September 4, 2013 10:19 PM

    lol, these responses are great. Please include Sheyla in your "craziest comments of the year" write up!

  • SHEYLA | September 4, 2013 1:24 PM

    S you are a bitch, so, shut fuck up you please.

  • Co-Sign | September 4, 2013 12:07 PM

    Co-Sign. Everyone loves Marion, but but shut up already.

  • s | September 4, 2013 11:27 AM

    Holy shit are you her agent or something? Shut up about Marion Cotillard already.

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