This morning saw the first official press screening of “Under The Skin,” the first new film in nine years from “Sexy Beast” and “Birth” helmer Jonathan Glazer, which premieres officially at the Venice Film Festival tonight. But as you’ll know if you were reading over the weekend, the film’s already been unveiled across the Atlantic as part of the line-up at the Telluride Film Festival.
Playlist correspondent Chris Willman saw and liked the film, an adaptation of the novel by Michel Faber which stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien creature seducing and killing men in Scotland, in Telluride, saying that “a cult audience with a penchant for SF morality tales may warm to this chilly girl-who-fell-to-earth story.” But we saw the film this morning in Venice, and we fell a lot harder for it: it’s certainly the best film in Venice competition so far, and one of the best movies of the year.
And we felt so damn enthusiastic about “Under The Skin” that we decided to run down five of the reasons that we believe it’s one of the must-see films of 2013, ahead of its screenings at TIFF and, hopefully before too long, its general release. Check the reasons out below.
1. It marks the wholehearted return of Jonathan Glazer
“Under The Skin” director Jonathan Glazer is something of a legend in the commercials world, having been behind some of the most artful ads of the last few decades, including the Guinness surfing ad scored to Leftfield‘s “Phat Planet,” and the Sony Xperia promo set to Jose Gonzalez‘s “Heartbeats.” Not every filmmaker transitions from short-form to features successfully, but Glazer came up with a stellar debut with 2000’s “Sexy Beast.” Four years later, he returned with “Birth,” starring Nicole Kidman, a strange, unclassifiable, but deeply wonderful film that didn’t find the audience or critical reception it deserved at the time, but which has gone on to be something of a cult favorite. It’s taken a long time (there were a few false starts with financing, and the film had a long post-production period of nearly two years), but it’s certainly worth the wait. If the premise makes it sound like Glazer’s sold out and made a commercial horror/sci-fi genre picture, you couldn’t be more wrong—this is the filmmaker at his most experimental and unfiltered, with stunning images that of all three of his films to date, is most reminiscent of his unforgettable commercials work (more on this below). But he’s not just a visual stylist—the performances, not just from Johansson, but from her lesser-known co-stars, are rich and utterly convincing. And like “Birth,” it seems chilly on the surface, but is bursting with feeling underneath. The film was always likely to divide people, but hopefully it’ll have enough supporters to ensure that we don’t have to wait as long for Glazer’s fourth film.
2. It’s not quite like anything you’ve seen.
It’s not that “Under The Skin” is entirely absent of reference points—plenty of wags have brought up the “Species” comparison in advance, and since it screened, more than one person has brought up “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (not unfair, though if we’re taking Bowie, “Loving The Alien” seems like an equally appropriate choice). They’re fair comparisons, certainly, but to us, “Under The Skin” felt like its own beast. If anything, it fits neatly into the recent run of oddball, psychedelic sci-fi films like “Beyond The Black Rainbow” and “Upstream Color“—from its opening moments, the film is packed to the gills with unique, unsettling images, and strikes an ominous, unsettling tone. Like those two earlier films, it might enervate those who want clear answers and traditional storytelling, neither of which even remotely interest Glazer here. But as a mood piece and a puzzle box, it works like gangbusters, and we’ve been picking over the film almost continuously in the 24 hours since we’ve seen it, and are dying to go back for another immersion in its world.
3. It features some of the most striking images of the year.
If you know Glazer’s previous work, be it short-form or feature-length, you won’t be surprised to learn that “Under The Skin” is positively stacked with unforgettable images. The man who brought us horses in the surf and Sexy Beast’s demonic rabbit creature knows how to deliver an indelible picture, and if anything, he excels himself here with a film that comes closer to his commercials work in look and feel that the Kubrickian qualities of “Birth.” The opening images, unexplained and abstract, feel like something from “2001” as a glowing circle travels through the darkness, forming into an eye over the words “Film, film, film.” We still don’t know quite what to make of it, but it’s a fascinating note on which to open on. And from there, Glazer mixes an almost kitchen-sink naturalism as Johansson’s character makes her way through the streets of Glasgow, and bold, out-there glimpses of the weirdness under the surface. Two in particular—one early on, as two of her captors come face to face, the other at the very end as her true guise is revealed—have genuinely haunted us since we’ve seen it. DoP Daniel Landin doesn’t have many feature credits to his name—horror “The Uninvited” and gangster tale “44-Inch Chest” being the most notable, though he has a long history with Glazer in promos—but the Gordon Willis-like way he shoots in near-complete darkness alone will surely put him in high demand. It’s the kind of film you dream of once it’s done, and we can’t think of a higher recommendation than that.
4. Scarlett Johansson gives the performance of her career.
The film’s star is the kind of actress who’s perhaps never quite gotten her due, inspiring a disproportionate amount of negativity from those who’ve taken against her. It’s true that, with the wrong material, or without a director who knows how to deploy her properly, Johansson can come across as flat, but you’d think that twelve years after “Ghost World,” and with “Lost In Translation,” “Match Point,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “The Avengers” and “Don Jon” under her belt, she’d get a little more credit. But we suspect that even the haters will be coming on board after “Under The Skin,” because she’s quite, quite astonishing in the film. She has to carry the entire film on her shoulders (she’s almost the only recognizable face in the film, Glazer cannily contrasting her megastar status against actors from Ken Loach films or even non-pros to emphasize the sense of an otherworldly being walking among us), and does it without breaking a sweat. To begin with, she’s robotic and predatory, a sexual Terminator stalking the streets for targets, but able to deftly sweet to a flirty doe-eyed temptress, carefully working out which of the men of Glasgow are likely to be missed the least. But over time, she softens, she starts to develop her humanity—most notably in an extraordinary scene where she picks up a deformed man—and Johansson’s subtly expressive features beautifully put this across as she finds new curiosity, new fears, and new despair in the human world. It’s also a very physical performance—the title is quite deliberate, and there’s almost a Cronenbergian fascination with the human body at play—and Johansson is game and fearless to do whatever Glazer has asked her to do. It’s not the kind of turn that will ever attract awards attention, at least outside the festival circuit: the film’s too esoteric, and the performance too subtle, for that. But it is the kind that is destined to be one of an actor’s best remembered, especially years down the line.
5. The score is weird and wonderful.
Even if “Birth” wasn’t necessarily appreciated at first, the score, by Alexandre Desplat, helped popularize him with U.S. filmmakers, and he’s now perhaps the most in demand composer working. If there’s any justice, “Under The Skin” will do the same for Mica Levi. The 26-year-old Londoner, classically trained but best known as frontwoman of acclaimed experimental pop band Micachu & The Shapes, is a first-time composer for film, but you wouldn’t know it from the finished product, because it’s something very special indeed. Often, a score will merely be the cherry on top of a film (we don’t necessarily mean that in a derogatory way), but Levi’s work is positively ingrained in the very fabric of the film, and it’s impossible to imagine it without it. Rhythmic, often drone-like, otherworldly and often terrifying, it, like the film as a whole, doesn’t quite sound like anything else. Levi’s known for creating her own musical instruments, and we’d be very surprised if that wasn’t the case here, as there are sounds that, to our ears, don’t appear to be human in origin. It’s perfect for the film, and we look forward to listening to it both solo and in the context of the movie.
On page 2, a brief Q&A with the director from Venice and a few clips of Johansson and Glazer speaking from Venice.
A brief Q&A from the “Under The Skin” press notes. Remember, this is probably the first time the director has given an interview in several years. Scarlett Johansson and Glazer discuss the film in two clips below.
Q: What drew you to the material?
I really connected with the idea of looking at the world through alien eyes. That was the spark.
Q: How did you come to shoot the film in the way you did?
The central idea was about disguising the actress and dropping her in the real world. Everything had to serve that. So we built a bespoke camera system with heads that were small enough to be hidden, and positioned them according to the action we wanted to cover. Then the crew would effectively walk away and Scarlett would step in. This way there was no evidence of a film being shot. There’s a scene for instance where she falls in the street and is then helped to her feet by passers-by. Conventionally, you’d have to lock off the street, fill it with extras, block it, rehearse it then shoot it. Here, we pointed our hidden cameras at the spot where she’d fall and waited to see what happened. Also her character spends a lot of the film driving and I didn’t want that to be simulated either. I wanted her immersed in the function of driving. So we built the cameras into the cab. This way she could drive and we could film everything she did and everything she drove past. We were photographing her and her points of view simultaneously. The cameras become an extension of her own eye almost.
Q: When she winds down her window to some of the people you see in the film, were they just people passing the streets?
Yes they were people just going about their lives.
Q: Did anyone recognize her?
Yes, there were a couple of people who did, but not so much most of the time. We were filming in a nightclub in Glasgow across two nights and Scarlett was in the thick of that and after you’ve been there for a while and she’s been doing the same thing four of five times, crossing the dance-floor, you begin to see people are aware that something is going on. But she didn’t look familiar in how people are used to seeing her.
Q: How do you choreograph a scene where most of the cast is unaware of what is going on?
Well, you have to plan where to hide your cameras and then you shoot the way you would if you had control. It made the scenes very tense and you always run the risk of not getting what you set out to but that was how I saw it, that’s the way I thought it would work best.
Q: Did you know if it was going to work?
Conceptually I knew it was going to work.