Under the Skin

Two movies from the Toronto Film Festival last year really stuck in my memory. One was Gravity for its almost minimalist, allegorical story structure. Everyone leaving the theater after the premiere knew it would be a huge hit; it was accessible and recalled what movies on the big screen can do that no other medium can match. In the moment, I thought it had a very good chance to be the next Best Picture winner (which went to another movie that played the festival, 12 Years a Slave, which I couldn't get a ticket for).

However, while I enjoyed Gravity, I was haunted by Under the Skin. It was the final movie I saw at the festival, and it's the type of movie that stuns you at a film festival because a catalog description can't really do it justice; so much of its effect comes not from plot but from the cinematography, score, editing, and other elements unique to film. The hook that got me to pick the movie out of the catalog was not Scarlett Johansson as the lead, though I enjoyed her work in Ghost World and Lost in Translation, but the director, Jonathan Glazer.

As a film director, Glazer isn't prolific. Most of his output has been music videos (e.g. the music video for Karma Police by Radiohead) and commercials. Until Under the Skin, he had directed just two narrative films, Sexy Beast and Birth, and the latter came out ten years ago. Birth, in particular, had a sequence that had such beautiful, seamless melding of music and onscreen action that I analyzed it as a dance.

I said the movie couldn't be understood from its plot description, but some exposition is helpful for understanding why the movie's formal elements are so successful.

[MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD. Though the plot of the movie can't being to describe the sensation of watching it (imagine describing the plot of 2001), if you plan to see the movie, I recommend reading as little about the movie as possible]

Johansson plays an alien wearing the body of a human. In the most fascinating performance of her career, Johansson deadens all evidence of recognizable inner life both in her facial expression and physical movements. As the movie progresses, Johansson starts to let a few recognizable glimmers of humanity emerge, clueing us in to the alien's growing sympathy for the human subject.

Part of the horror of the movie comes in a mixture of some secret live footage mixed into the movie. To capture scenes of the alien seducing human men, Glazer put Johansson in a wig and behind the wheel of a truck and had her drive around Glasgow picking up strange men off the street. Glazer hid in the back of the truck listening to the audio being captured through a hidden mic while concealed cameras captured the interaction.

One could argue that if aliens came to Earth in the form of Scarlett Johansson in bright red lipstick, we'd likely be done for (well, at least the straight men in the world), but Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin manage to render the seduction scenes terrifying. The moments in the truck were shot from concealed cameras that couldn't be moved, and the odd and fixed camera angles are different enough from the conventional Hollywood camera angles used to film conversations in automobiles that we feel we're watching found documentary footage. The subsequent seductions take place in a seemingly black void, choreographed like some avant garde dance performance. If it's possible to make Scarlett Johansson disrobing seem nonerotic, Glazer and team come as close as one could imagine.

Much of the movie's cinematography sits in strange space between a video or documentary look and something more cinematic. Most of the lighting is natural, and many scenes are dark, even murky. To be able to shoot undetected, and with maximum freedom of movement for the actors, the cinematographer worked with a London studio to develop a custom camera that was used to shoot some of the movie's scenes. The unique look is both familiar yet unique, contributing to the movie's otherworldly feel.

The score by Mica Levi is a masterpiece. You can hear snippets from it in the trailer. It's the perfect music for the next time you plan to host an Eyes Wide Shut inspired orgy. When the score isn't playing the movie is largely dialogue-free, almost like a silent movie or a voiceover-free documentary like Leviathan. At times it evokes Ligeti, but like the other elements of the movie it is like nothing else I've heard before. 

Under the Skin is a masterpiece, but plenty walked out of the Toronto premiere befuddled or disturbed. It's not a conventional narrative, it unfolds at its own pace and cares little for evoking any familiar human emotions, so seriously does it take its mission of showing us our world through alien eyes. On that point it succeeds, too well for some people I spoke to afterwards. More than any movie I can recall, it clinically observes and presents so many of the oddities of humanity—desire, compassion, lust, and death—and its success is in making us see them for their bizarre and wondrous qualities.