Thursday, 2 October, 2014

Published June 13, 2014
Suffering for art
Scarlett Johansson plays an alien with a macabre attraction for young men in Under The Skin, writes GEOFFREY EU
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Beyond skin-deep: Johansson performs admirably even with very little lighting and a sparse script

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AN alien taking the form of a mysterious female cruising the dark, damp streets of Glasgow and seeking out random males to seduce for nefarious purposes sounds like a juicy premise - especially if the woman in question is played by Scarlett Johansson. She may be an A-list celebrity but her status allows her to make interesting career choices, away from the Hollywood norm. Under the Skin, a moody contemplation of identity and alienation and inflected with slightly bizarre elements of science fiction, is about as far removed as possible from the land of the summer blockbuster.

This is no big-budget star vehicle - in fact the scenes are generally so under-lit that at times viewers will have to squint into the gloom on the screen and use their imaginations to figure out what they're looking at. Director Jonathan Glazer evokes a dangerous, grimly uncertain mood by taking a less-is-more approach, and his sparse use of light is matched only by a distinct lack of dialogue.

The film, adapted by Glazer and Walter Campbell from the novel of the same name by Michel Faber, begins with a dazzling interstellar white light that eventually dissolves into a close-up of Ms Johansson's eye. It then proceeds to tell the story of an unnamed extraterrestrial who inhabits the body of an attractive female and spends her time luring strangers into her van with the promise of a sexual encounter.

The art of the alien pickup simply involves stopping by the side of the road and asking for directions. In true cinema verite style, many of the roadside scenes feature actual bystanders, unaware that they are on camera. She is expressionless most of the time, even when she is shedding her clothes and leading victims to their grisly fate, enveloped by a liquid void and kept in storage for future consumption by her superiors.

Her actions are observed from a distance by a supervisor on a motorbike who tidies up loose ends and ensures that alien protocol is being observed.

Posing as a human arouses her curiosity and there is a scene where she examines her human form in the mirror, vulnerable and uncertain, but eager to find out more about the skin she's in.

She notices differences in her victims too, telling a man afflicted by "elephant-man" disease that he has "soft hands". Later, she meets a kind man who provides shelter and human interaction, but an initial attempt at actual sex confuses and upsets her and she runs off into the woods - where more shadows and other dangers lurk.

Under the Skin has the spare - almost too spare - look of experimental arthouse fare, the kind that typically makes the rounds on the festival circuit. It is quietly unsettling and eerily effective in parts but a film that is devoid of narrative and exposition can also be a challenge, especially if you're not in the mood.

Still, the central role qualifies as an admirable act of bravery on Ms Johansson's part: she's willing to suffer for her art - and it's not asking too much to suffer along with her.

Rating: C+