Before this year's Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer had only made two narrative features: the better-than-average gangster film Sexy Beast (2001), and the gorgeous Nicole Kidman-starring head-scratcher Birth (2004), in which a woman falls in love with a child claiming to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. One wondered what direction his career would take afterwards: would he tread back to more conventional waters, or would he go deeper into the experimental abyss? Ten years later, we have our answer, and it is undoubtedly the latter.
Under the Skin is based on a Michel Faber novel of the same name, in which an alien creature (Scarlett Johansson) stalks about Scotland looking for male victims to lure back to her lair and devour. That's really all there is to the plot of this film; the joys lay not in the story itself but in how Glazer, director of photography Daniel Landin, and production designer Chris Oddy have crafted a remarkable visual experience that transports the viewer.
More after the jump. (Warning: some of the images from this film contain nudity)
The most interesting thing that Glazer and Landin have accomplished visually is placing us within the headspace of the otherworldly visitor at the center of the film. The creature says very little over the course of the film (and her victims - potential or otherwise - speak with such thick Scottish brogues that they can be hard to understand), so it's up to Johansson and the film's visuals to do the heavy-lifting.
First of all, much of the credit for the success of these visuals belongs to Johansson. She's always been a unique and talented actress, even though Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with her in the previous decade. She has screen presence to spare, which is extremely beneficial here, since she's required to hold the viewer's attention while hardly saying anything. The way that Johansson let's her blank countenance contort ever so slightly to convey different emotions - shifting just a bit into a seductive pout, then into brief panic - is brilliant. She creates a fully-dimensional character out of a being that is intended to be a blank slate, mimicking human behavior in order to feed, and she expertly plays these emotions as the creature discovering them for the first time. Thanks to her performance, the audience is able to connect with the character, despite her alien (and dangerous) nature.
Landin's photography, then, is equally important because he films Scotland like an alien planet, a world where the landscapes are strange and the inhabitants are even stranger. By doing so, he's presenting the world the way that the creature would be experiencing it, and it contributes to the film's otherworldly quality. Just look at the way he frames the hallway to a stranger's home as a tightly-enclosed space:
Or, in one of the film's more humorous moments, how a group of girls bringing the creature with them to a club places her a vulnerable position:
The girls surround her much like a pack of predators surrounding their prey; the creature is panicking out of fear of what they would do to her.
Similarly, a shelter deep in the forest becomes more eerie by being opened up within the frame:
And the Scottish landscape is made to look like the surface of another planet, as the alien's motorcycle-riding assistant (professional racer Jeremy McWilliams) races across the country in her service:
It's clever work, especially since it gives the film a central character an accessibility that the audience can latch on to. Over the course of the film, after we accompany her on a few hunts in the first act, we watch her as she silently attempts to understand friendship, mercy, sex, dancing, music, and chocolate cake. These are all foreign to her, and she rejects many of them. But being in a different world means being exposed to the cultures of that world. If nothing else, Under the Skin is a fish-out-of-water story, albeit one that rejects narrative filmmaking conventions.
However, this isn't to say that Landin doesn't craft a number of striking sci-fi-tinged images as well. These moments are some of the film's most inventive, beginning with the seduction scenes. Set against a completely black backdrop, the creature strips down, with the men following suit:
Then leading them into an inky goo that becomes their downfall.
Compare these sequences to an earlier one, in which the creature's assistant brings her a girl - possibly paralyzed, possibly dead - from which the creature takes her clothes. It's set against an all-white background, with the two figures almost completely in shadow. This is made even more striking by these two shots, which puts the creature perpendicular to the girl she's just stripped of her clothes, her life, and her self:
It's almost a color-inverse of the German expressionism that heavily influenced the film noir genre.
But when it comes to my choice for Best Shot, there's one that stands out more than any other:
This comes from a sequence in which the audience sees what exactly becomes of the victims once they disappear beneath the surface (hint: it doesn't end well for them). Her latest victim is foregrounded, shot suspended in the liquid and lit with a cool blue, as he looks up to see the creature effortlessly walking on the surface above. It's a gorgeous - and very cool - shot in a film full of them. This poor guy still hasn't figured out what's happened to him, and he has no idea that it's about to get so much worse.
Though, to wrap things up, I do also want to share this shot of the assistant as he searches for her, as a kind of runner-up:
It's a haunting, beautiful image, but I think what draws me to it is that it bears an uncanny resemblance to Casper David Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. That's a pretty apt title for both this image and the creature itself.