As an avid film lover, I have seen my fair share of weird films, and I usually adore them. However, very few films ever elicit the response of “what the hell was that” from me, and when a film is able to confuse me to that degree, it might not be the best thing. One of the most polarizing films I have ever seen is Under the Skin, a film that left me at a loss for words and made me feel perplexed. This is not going to be a rave review, I promise you that, but it will also not be an entirely critical review, because Under the Skin…well, that was quite something.
I love surrealism – David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Luis Bunuel are some of my favorite filmmakers ever. I am no stranger to perplexing but imaginative cinema, and I quite frankly celebrate it when it is done well. Under the Skin is one of the prime examples of surrealism gone wrong. Don’t get me wrong, it captures the dark atmosphere and the confusion and abstract reality perfectly well – but it leaves out one element of great surreal films – the otherworldly sense of wonder, and the heart. Even a bleak film like Eraserhead, which was as terrifying as it was surreal, had some wonderful heart to it. Under the Skin just left me cold and, well I’ll be honest, it upset me quite a bit, and I have absolutely no idea why it would.
Yet, there was something very interesting about the way it used human emotion and blended it with surrealism. Glazer clearly took his cue from the other great surrealist filmmakers, such as his use of the raw sexuality of Alejandro Jodrowsky’s films, the bleak outlook on everyday life as seen in Luis Bunuel’s films, and of course the most blatant example of “borrowing” from another filmmaker comes in the very memorable encounter between the main character and a disfigured man, played wonderfully by Adam Pearson, where Jonathan Glazer was clearly attempting to pay homage of sorts to David Lynch’s classic surreal biopic of Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man, and for some reason, Glazer seemed to want to “right the wrongs” that society inflicted upon Merrick in his lifetime by having Scarlett Johansson’s alien character show some humanity to a man with such jarring disfigurements but a truly good heart. Nice try, Glazer, but it doesn’t quite work, because Johansson plays an alien, and Pearson’s character meets a sad end as well. Of course, if Jonathan Glazer was much younger and this was his film debut, I would no doubt be praising him for being inspired by the three greatest surrealists of all time. However, Glazer is an experienced filmmaker, so I would expect some sort of originality from him here, like he showed us in his actual debut film, Sexy Beast.
Of course, I don’t think Glazer was truly trying to make something in the vein of Lynch, Bunuel or Jodorowsky, because very many people have compared this film to a Stanley Kubrick film. I won’t deny that I saw the connection as well – but I wasn’t very happy about that. As one of the biggest fans of Stanley Kubrick in the world, I have to say I expected someone trying to pay homage to him to try and do a better job than this. It is very evident that Glazer was simply pulling out technique from the Stanley Kubrick Book of Genius, and while he managed to make use of the other surrealists’ style without blatantly copying their technique, he just didn’t get it right here, and he can deny that he was inspired by Kubrick until the cows come home, I will still be entirely unconvinced, and there is a reason why – there is not a filmmaker alive today that is not inspired by Stanley Kubrick, and it is very obvious that Glazer himself is a fan – his previous two films, Sexy Beast and Birth, both have elements of Kubrickian style.
Under the Skin, however, is Glazer’s failed attempt at making something polarizing and controversial that will undoubtedly become a science fiction classic, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. The passion is most certainly there, but the effort just isn’t. Much like A Clockwork Orange, Under the Skin is an attempt at adapting an unfilmable novel and making something bleak and terrifying, and not too detached from reality. Yet one succeeded, and the other did not. It is unfortunate, because had Kubrick made Under the Skin, he would’ve made a great film, while Glazer made a film that is very much going to become a divisive film, but not one that becomes iconic or legendary, and I don’t see it accumulating a cult following – it just doesn’t have the staying power.
Now let’s talk about the film on its own merits, because comparing a recent film to other better films is certainly going to be unfair, and will set one off on a tangent, which we don’t really want here. Now all of the actors in this film are unprofessional, with the sole exception of Scarlett Johansson, who plays an unnamed seductress who lures men into her lair and kills them, but sucking them into a pool of black water where their innards are removed and harvested, and all that is left is their skin. There is a very graphic scene that shows the harvesting, and I have to be honest, I don’t ever recall being so disgusted in a film ever – I don’t mean offended or angry, I mean physically disgusted. I am considering giving this film a pretty good score for being able to make me feel physically ill with a single, simple scene. It was just absolutely gross and I have no idea if this was a genius filmmaking technique, or it was just bad taste and a case of a filmmaker taking the idea of independent filmmaking and artistic license much too far. Needless to say, if I ever watch this film again (at this point, I have no idea how likely that is), I will most certainly make sure I leave the room for that scene. It is just absolutely repulsive, and perhaps that’s why this film is so audacious, if I can be so generous to call it that.
Johansson truly impressed me in Lucy last year and gave arguably my favorite leading female performance of the year. I have to question how, in one year, a single actress can give one of my favorite performances in an underrated action film, and then in a different film, give such a boring and uninspired performance. This role would have been much better suited for an absolute unknown with no acting experience, because I will be blunt here – this role needed absolutely no experience whatsoever. I was never a huge fan of Johansson, but Lucy impressed me so much that it was able to change my perception of her as an actress. However, seeing a film like Under the Skin, where she gives a performance that is essentially less than nothing disappoints me, because I truly hope that she is an actress who has natural talent and doesn’t just depend on good writing and great direction. It felt like Johansson was making an effort to inject her performance with as little charm, energy and passion as possible. The result was a clunky, boring and very uninspired performance that absolutely any actress (nay, any woman) could have given, and unfortunately the performance Johansson gives is one of the worst of the year, and I have no doubt that a lot of how I perceived this film was a direct result of Johansson’s underwhelming performance.
I really wanted to like Under the Skin. I love films that take a chance and give us an original concept – and one bit of praise I can certainly give this film was that it was original. However, originality only works with execution, and Glazer just didn’t quite get it right. Fortunately, I could see what Glazer was trying to do with this film, but sadly he just didn’t get there. It is quite unfortunate, because with some more guidance or the hands of a different filmmaker, this film could have been a much better experience and would probably not fade away into obscurity, which I feel this film will do. I personally don’t know any reason to actually recommend this film other than it being a very interesting experience in itself, but not exactly a pleasant one. However, this film is very much a divisive one, and I just happen to be on one side of two groups. Perhaps others can find some meaning and brilliance in this film, I just personally couldn’t, and that’s a shame, because I would truly love to be on the side of those who loved it. Maybe another day in the future I will revisit it and maybe find my opinion to have changed. Until then, not a great film.