Film of the week review: Under The Skin

Event pix 13/3/14

Event pix 13/3/14 - Credit: Archant

The sex-crazed-alien-in-female-form-who-lands-on-Earth genre has a less than illustrious history. From Lifeforce to Species to various efforts featuring a surfeit of tentacles, they are never quite as much sordid fun as you would expect.

Under The Skin, which has Scarlett Johansson travelling around Glasgow in a white van luring unattached men to a fate worse than death, isn't much of a sordid romp either.

It is though a mesmerising, singular experience, a piece of pure cinema so audacious and perfectly realised that it makes most other films released in this or any other year look hopelessly primitive. So, swings and roundabouts, isn't it?

Jonathan Glazer is an ad director and music video maker (most famous for the Guinness surfer commercial: 'Tick follows tock follows tick…') whose two full-length feature films, Sexy Beast and Birth, displayed enormous technical skill but didn't quite have the artistry to match.

They both suggested a talent that could be going somewhere, but never hinted at a destination like this.

In fact, it's hard to believe that this is by the same director as Sexy Beast. That was propelled by a Pinter-inspired spew of language: this is an almost non-verbal experience.

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There is no dialogue for the first 15 minutes and the small amount that follows is little more than another part of the movie's impressive sound design and soundtrack. The meaning and the narrative is contained almost entirely in what you see rather than what they say, and what amazing things you see.

Structure is important, but the mark of a gifted author is knowing where to put words in a sentence and, for a film-maker, it is knowing where to put the camera. The camera placement in Under The Skin is immaculate; every inch of the frame has energy and life.

Adapted from Michel Faber's novel of the same name (though it has much far beyond a mere adaptation during the full decade that Galzer has been working on it), the story centres on a beautiful young woman called Laura (Johannson), who drives around the country in her large van, picking up unsuspecting men like Andrew (Paul Brannigan) with the promise of sex.

As they wander into her various dimly lit lairs, these would-be suitors are oblivious to the shocking truth: Laura is an earthbound extra-terrestrial who sheds her skin during copulation and overwhelms them at the height of their pleasure in a sea of viscous oil-like gloop.

There isn't a dull or ordinary shot in this quixotic and dreamlike film. Like The Man Who Fell to Earth, it tries to show our world through alien eyes. At times, the film resembles the Star Gate sequences in 2001 relocated to Govan; at others, it has the naturalistic otherness of Lynne Ramsey, particularly Morvern Callar. Everyday normality but not as we know it.

It is a sad irony that audiences are often scornful of actual cinema, resentful of the idea that the flicks might be getting ideas above their station. Because of its unconventional ways, this will be labelled 'challenging', yet really there isn't anything difficult about it. Under The Skin isn't challenging; it is astraightforward opportunity to be rather awed at the possibilities of what movies can be.

***** (5 stars)

For reviews of this week's other releases, including Need for Sped, The Zero Theorum and The Stag, as well as the latest local listings, see the Event supplement in Thursday's EDP and Evening News.

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