Just been watching…

Given my recent lack of enthusiasm for blogging, I thought that I would turn to my love of films and TV drama for inspiration. These will be occasional posts about things I have just watched. They may or may not constitute a proper review, depending on your opinion.

Under The Skin

-Includes possible spoilers-

This 2013 film from Jonathan Glazer starring Scarlett Johansson, received a great deal of critical acclaim on release. It was compared by some to ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, and by others to the work of David Lynch, and even Orson Welles. With all that praise, and the presence of Ms Johansson, I just had to get the DVD. But I waited until it was cheap, so I have only just watched it.

Despite the presence of the Hollywood star, it is very much a British film. Special effects are few, and are suitably believable. The locations in and around Glasgow and the Scottish countryside are wet, gloomy, and bleak. In fact, so much of the film is shot in such dim lighting, there were times that it was hard to make out what was happening, at least on a flat-screen TV. Scarlett is wearing her hair short and jet black this time, and it suits her. But then what doesn’t suit this incredibly attractive young woman? The whole film hinges on her unnamed character, and the rest of the cast are complete unknowns, enjoying brief appearances on screen.

It is established very quickly that her character is not of this world. Seen naked in silhouette, a male ‘accomplice’ delivers the body of a young woman to her. She strips the girl, and puts on her clothes. The man then gives her a van, possibly the only long-wheelbase transit in Scotland with an automatic gearbox. She drives to a local shopping centre, where she watches people buying clothes, and trying on make-up, before buying a new outfit, and some cosmetics. This is just one of a series of scenes and devices establishing her strange other-worldly persona to the viewer. Why didn’t the man just bring her some clothes? She is never seen with a handbag or money, yet she has make-up to hand, and doesn’t appear to steal from the shops. We never see her eat, (save for an attempt at a slice of cake) drink, sleep, or use a toilet. So we can conclude that her appearance might be human, but she has none of our needs for survival. We never see her wash, and she doesn’t change her clothes for the duration of the film. She is also unaffected by cold and wet weather, at least most of the time.

The soundtrack adds to the reveal. She hears things at different volumes, picks up conversational snippets, sometimes unintelligible. For the viewer this is as frustrating as it is interesting, with the volume changing from shouts to whispers at will. She drives through crowds of football supporters, stares at old people waiting at bus stops, gazes at passing traffic. She is detached from all around her, an outsider, looking in. OK, I get it. I expected her to suddenly put on a T-shirt bearing the logo ‘I am an alien’, and I began to get a little miffed at the extent of the plot signalling too. But I didn’t turn the film off, take it out of the player, and fling it out of the window in Beetley, and for one very good reason. Johannson is captivating to look at. Even when she is sitting motionless behind the wheel of a van, I could watch her all day. She doesn’t have much to say, but when she speaks, it is in a surprisingly good, well-spoken English accent. This jars against the harsh language of the Scottish characters, once again setting her apart. (OK, I get it!) She does ‘vacant’ extremely well, and the emotionless nature of her character suits her perfectly.

The main action of the bulk of the film centres around her driving aimlessly, in search of young men. She chats to them on the pretext of asking directions, establishing whether or not they live alone, or if someone will miss them if they decide to accept a lift with her. Who wouldn’t get into a van with Scarlett Johansson with the implication of sex in the very near future? I know I would be in that seat like a shot. Once back at her house, they might change their minds when they see the boarded-up slum that she invites them into. But one look at her again, and in they go. Inside the house, reality is distorted, as the size inside bears no relation to the external appearance. Mesmerised by her seductive striptease, the men take off their clothes, following her into what seems to be an oily lake. She walks on the surface, they sink slowly to their demise. After we see this happen a few times, we are later shown what goes on beneath the surface, as everything seems to be sucked out of the hapless men, leaving only their complete skins floating in the mire. Everything seems to be harvested through some kind of illuminated portal, going who knows where.

As if to really hammer home the point of her complete lack of emotion, there is a scene at a stormy beach. She approaches a potential victim, and as she chats to him, a young child gets into difficulties in the sea. The father dives in to save her, and her young prey goes to help. The child drowns, and the father, at first rescued, goes back in and also drowns. She becomes tired of watching this scene, so just hits the younger man with a rock, and drags him off to her van. A second child, only a baby, is left screaming on the beach. For the umpteenth time, we are shown how cold this character is.

After a mishap with a badly-deformed man, (she didn’t see the deformity- OK I get it) she heads off alone into the countryside. The film gets much better after this. The bleak scenery is incredibly photogenic. So much so, that I could almost forgive her sudden appearance in a hotel, and her attempt to eat the gateau, all presumably whilst having no money. She is taken in by a kindly local and given shelter. She eventually decides to make love to him, presumably curious as to how this body she inhabits actually functions. It doesn’t go well though, and she runs off into the woods, wearing a coat taken from the house, as she now seems to feel the cold, and to be bothered by the rain. The last fifteen minutes of the film will have to be left up to you. All I will say it that they are a very good fifteen minutes. The ‘accomplices’ are searching for her on their motorcycles, and she meets a forestry worker in the conifers. Then it all gets very good indeed.

Can a film this long be ‘saved’ by the last section? I have to say it can. And it was.

This is the official trailer.

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23 thoughts on “Just been watching…

  1. We loved this film Pete so a great review of it in your post. What was so evocative was ‘life imitating art’ – watching Scarlett Johansson, this huge Hollywood star wandering round a bleak wee village in Scotland, she must have indeed almost looked alien-esque in that location, beamed from planet Hollywood! Very best wishes, Jane x

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    1. I find that I am still thinking about it a lot. That is a tribute to not only its strangeness, but also Scarlett, who I have liked since ‘Ghost World’. She is a cut above the Hollywood pack, without doubt. X

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  2. I wish I could review a film just like you do, a detailed description fo scenes that entices one to view it. Sadly, I am not much into DVDs or movies so I am not familiar with it.

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    1. I am not that sure you would like this one Arlene. I am basing that on the sort of books you like, and other things you have mentioned. However, I am sure that you could review a film very well; just write about it in the same way you describe the books you enjoy.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  3. Hi Pete. I love the book by Michael Faber and was very keen to see the film. Oh my word, I hated it! I think its to do with expectations, it does seem to be only very loosely based on the book but for me it destroyed the magic of the book. I knew what was coming and the dimly lit preamble of it all just did not grab. I think it’s a real Marmite of a film – I love Marmite but I didn’t like this! Have a go at the book sometime, it would be interesting to see what someone thinks coming to the book after the film.

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    1. Thanks Phil. I obviously didn’t read the book first, but many books I have read that were later filmed often disappointed. There are some exceptions though; Angela’s Ashes, Doctor Zhivago, to name a couple. I wanted to love this film (mainly because I thought Scarlett was very good) but the dim lighting took so much away from it.
      i will check out the book though, thanks for the suggestion.
      ( I don’t actually like Marmite, but my wife does…)
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  4. Pete, I borrowed this film from the library a couple of months ago. Last night, as I was watching “Hanna” (2011), another library offering, I complained about the dark scenes that made it difficult to follow the action. This is an issue from time to time with films, and I remember it being a rather big issue with “Under the Skin.” I’ve often wondered how much better dark scenes come off in a movie theater.

    I found “Under the Skin” to be an interesting film, and read some of the analyses offered on the internet which detail and discuss the more subtle images that provide clues to the story, which is basically about how studying humans can lead to one’s own humanization. Although a critical darling (the film being likened to Kubrick’s work) and the recipient of much media hype (Scarlett Johansson’s nudity), the movie, which was budgeted at $13.3 million, only raked in about $5.4 million worldwide upon its release. I suspect “Under the Skin” will become profitable on DVD and Blu-Ray, though, as it has been deemed a cult film candidate.

    As for “Hanna,” I was very disappointed.

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    1. I didn’t get the critical comparison with Kubrick at all David. And some of the incredibly pretentious reviews of this film on the Internet made me laugh out loud. It’s just a film after all, hardly the answer to life as we know it.
      I was also very disappointed with ‘Hanna’, which was badly over-hyped, and could have been so much better.
      I can forgive this film a lot because of Scarlett though, even with her clothes on.
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

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      1. Pete, I just watched “Godzilla” (2014), and was very frustrated by the darkness that prevailed during the “monster fight” scenes in San Francisco. It really ruined the film for me. Never mind that one of the MUTO’s previously destroyed Las Vegas, and that the actors mispronounced Nevada. Mere quibbles. I just wanted to see what was going on!

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        1. I might give the 2014 Godzilla a miss anyway David, dark or not. I have seen enough Godzillas to last me my lifetime, I reckon.
          This ‘darkness trend’ is becoming too prevalent though. One day, it will be a black screen, with just the soundtrack. (Or was that Radio?)
          Best wishes, Pete.

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    1. Thanks Marta, I feel much the same. Not bad for what it cost me though, cheaper than the bus fare to the nearest cinema, let alone the ticket price. I will watch it again before I make my mind up, that’s certain. As I get older, I find myself less tolerant of blatant errors or assumptions, and tend to pick up on them, instead of just relaxing and enjoying the experience.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  5. Pete, what an interesting review of this movie, “Under the Skin.” At first I thought I wouldn’t be bothered by watching this movie, but.. oh how there is always a but in there eh?

    Your teaser for the ending brings me back into interest for this film.. I too dislike the darkness of movies where they need the cover of darkness so the film works.

    The volumes of sound which differ from highs to lows also bother me as I can’t find the button on my remote fast enough to raise or lower it.. So all in all most of the problems I’ve found are all on my side as a viewer..

    1. need better glasses to see in the dark. 2. need my lamps on to see the remote, instead of watching films in a darken room.. (which I like to do.)

    All in all I’ll be on the look out for this movie, sounds just strange enough for me to love it…. Thanks for enlightening us with this great review, and I look forward to many more…

    🙂 Take care and happy blogging to ya, from Laura 🙂

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    1. Thanks Laura. The darkness is an issue if you have a fairly reflective LED TV screen, as I do. I also like to watch films in the dark, and this one might be worse with lights on in the room. Changing the volume levels won’t help much, as the muted tomes are intentional. If you can see it cheaply, or on a streaming service, it’s unusual enough to warrant a viewing.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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