The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Under the Skin

Ana Dreyfuss Quillon reviews Jonathan Glazer's new film


Let's cut to the chase: this is a cinematic masterpiece and if you haven't caught it on the big screen you should while there is still a chance to do so. Sombre, beautiful, disturbing, darky comic and, at times, horrific, this filmic re-imagining of Michel Faber's satirical SF fantasy transcends genre film making and will stay with you long after you see it, both in terms of its stunning imagery and its iconic central performance by Scarlett Johanson, and in its 'show, don't tell' treatment of the big philosophical themes it embraces.

Director Glazer's decision to junk the pointed but intellectually flimsy anti-meat eating satire of the novel for something much more ambiguous and haunting is a masterstroke. It allows the journey of Scarlett Johanson's un-named central character - cold, amoral, yet uncomfortably sexually alluring - who drives around contemporary Scotland seeking victims in lonely, friendless young men for some dark and never quite specified alien project, and who eventually begins to take on some human qualities, emotions and frailties, to become an intellectual and emotional odyssey for the viewer that confronts predation - sexual and otherwise - the idea of the other, and ultimately, what it means to be human.

Liberally, the film ultimately takes a view that will be welcome to most progressives, and familiar from the great SF classic Blade Runner - that what makes us human is not the skin or even the flesh under it, but in the ability to self reflect, empathise and rationalise.

Visually the movie is stunning, making the familiar feel unfamilar, and the unfamiliar...well, just take my advice: DON'T watch this film under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Kubrickian 2001 style imagery contrasts sharply in juxtaposition to the almost kitchen sink documentary feel of Johansson's character driving or walking through the streets of contemporary Glasgow. When the action moves out to the Scottish countryside the long shots of tiny figures moving through stunning landscapes will take your breath away. And yet this is also a film of small things, of ants and cake, of Johanson time after time carefully applying her blood red lipstick, of little rainpools in a forest. Johanson's sinous vampiric disrobing as she leads her boys into the blackstuff is something to haunt dreams.

Is it a great 'Scottish' movie?  Not at all, it's a great movie, full stop, and absolutely international in its cinematic language and in its themes. Is it the best movie ever to be shot in and take place exclusively in Scotland? Quite possibly.

The film is not dialogue or plot heavy, yet it has narrative drive in the best sense of European cinema, taking it's time when it has to, and never being shouty or preachy. It is a dark and often difficult film, you'll feel uneasy and anxious, and at least once you will jump out of your skin. But there are also - thank goodness - at least 4 occasions where you will laugh. Who would have thought that 'I just want tae go tae Tesco's' would be one of the funniest and most heartbreaking lines of the year. Context is everything.

Johanson's performance is superb. Whatever else she does in her career she will be remembered for this.

Other points of note? Well, as well as genuinely horrifyng murders and deaths, there is full frontal nudity of both sexes (including erect penises), a quite full on tragi-comic sex scene, and a brutal attempted rape. Somewhat reassuring then, that the film managed to secure a 15 certificate.  A generation ago, it would have been banned, or cut. Again, context (in this case, moral) is everything.

The film's finale, set in Scottish woodland, reprises the theme of predation to devastating effect and generates tension and suspense worthy of Hitchcock. The final payoff is downbeat but allows for a long moment of reflection, like the silence after the dying bars of a great symphony, and the resonance of the final smoky, snowy shot is no less powerful for its obvious allegory.


External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Viridis Lumen