01 May 2014

Getting Under Your Skin

"Under The Skin" (2014)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson

Michel Faber's novel of the same name is one of my favourite books, possibly my favourite modern novel. I discovered it upon publication when I worked at a bookstore and immediately fell in love. I made everyone I could read it. When my boyfriend and I first got together, I made him take it with him on an extended trip with the warning that he "must read this book or don't bother coming back". Perhaps that's a bit harsh, but I kind of meant it. Faber has such a way with story telling that crosses genre boundaries. His lead, Isserly, is at once both feminine and other, child-like and sultry. She's a character in pain but who stomachs it for the greater good. I have been anticipating this film for over a year and was anxious to see how they would translate the cerebral sci-fi novel to the big screen. 

After having watched the film, I wish more reviewers had pointed out this is a very loose adaptation of the book. Perhaps then I wouldn't have found myself waiting patiently for the climax to unfurl or confused by the complete departure from my beloved text. One must assume the departure was that of budgetary constraints. The novel is sparse in terms of locations (Scottish Highlands, car interior, barn), but leaves so much up to the reader to interpret. In Glazer's film version, the lead is now Laura; a vaguely English rose with exotic features that convey safety and sensuality. Johansson plays her not as a stranger in a strange land or as a tortured soul battling physical pain and adolescent awkwardness, but as a brooding silent type with her eyes and thoughts only on the mission at hand. That mission is to pick up men on the street, take them back to her house, and do god knows what with them. The film allows the reader inside this sanctuary much sooner than in the book and that's a godsend. Once inside this onyx room, we get a glimpse into the big picture. It's only after Laura picks up a man with facial deformities that her interactions with her subjects up to the point begin to weigh on her. It's the first glimmer of a nurture verses nature argument and one of the better I've seen. She wanders the countryside, aimless and intrigued. Could she run away from her purpose? Could she hide here in Scotland forever?

Jonathan Glazer does a great job at creating a haunting, nightmarish dream scape of a film that begs to be watched repeatedly even if doing so will fuck your mind again. I walked from the theatre in a daze, the last time doing so having been Mike Nicol's "Closer". The script is almost dialog free. The visuals (from Daniel Landin, mostly of music video fame) are really the main character. Glasgow stands in for Inverness and it's people all the background you need. Much is shot with hidden cameras and the men Johansson talks to are not actors but real passerby. It lends a realism that is comforting while making their outcome all the more disturbing.

This film is for those who love avant garde, experimental, foreign, and quiet films. It is not for the sleepy. The score by newcomer Mica Levi sounds like Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Howard Shore on a synthed out trip through some crazy mind freak. Fans of the book should be advised to leave their memories of the text at the door and simply give in to the experience that will beg to be discussed at length with other viewers after the show.