September 12, 2013



A film festival is certainly the place for a feature-length semi-linear flow of unscripted dialogue and bizarre imagery if anywhere is, so welcome to UNDER THE SKIN.  The writer/director Jonathan Glazer has gradually been transforming into an abstract filmmaker:  he started with Sexy Beast, which was a fairly traditional narrative, then followed it with Birth, a piece that made more sense as a study in mood than as a coherent story (and which, despite some impassioned critical praise, sank almost instantly with audiences).

With Under the Skin, Glazer has taken things to the next level.  Scarlett Johansson portrays a nameless alien from another planet who resides in Scotland, where she drives around in a van and approaches random men, luring them back to her flat.  (Some of the men who take part in these scenes, according to Glazer, are not actors–the Borat-like production filmed them with spy cameras as Johansson, whom they didn’t recognize, had unscripted conversations with them, with releases being obtained after the fact.) Once lured, after she and the man pull off their clothes and the man is completely naked, he dissolves into an overall pool of black goo, although whether this is her way of feeding or something she does for the good of her planet is unclear.  Glazer’s point in all this seems to be to emphasize the way that the alien’s reactions are different than our own, as in a sequence where she talks to a man who appears to have Elephant Man’s disease and only notices his beautiful hands.

Those sequences take up most of the film’s first half; in the second, there’s something that more approximates a story (a screenplay is credited to Glazer and Walter Campbell, based loosely on Michel Faber’s novel), as the alien has what could be called a brief relationship with a human, and seems to approach the idea of becoming more human-like herself–attempting to eat a piece of cake, for example.

Either you find this kind of thing worth two hours of your time or you don’t; some critics are hailing Under the Skin as one of the major artworks of the year, while others have no use for it.  To these eyes, the film resembled a cross between mumblecore and music video, in both respects running far longer than needed. The imagery by cinemtographer Daniel Landin is certainly arresting and unusual, more like video installation than any traditional idea of “movies,” and the drone-noise score by Mica Levi is similarly so. Johansson, for her part, is nothing but game, interacting with the non-pros, altering her physicality to remove any humanity, and disrobing when asked.  (The film has been picked up for theatrical distribution despite its seeming lack of commercial appeal, which may be due to Johansson’s nudity, however decorous and brief those sequences are.)

Under the Skin makes Terence Malick’s recent cinematic adventures seem as conventional as a set of comic book superhero sequels, and those fundamentally done with the conventional moviegoing experience may find it a thrilling exercise.   For the rest of us it’s a long slog through the avant-garde.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."