‘I had no interest in just making a genre film,” says Jonathan Glazer of Under the Skin, in what might be the understatement of the year. For matters of convenience, many critics have filed the 49-year-old British filmmaker’s long-gestating third feature under the heading of science fiction. But Under the Skin is too strange and spacious to be so easily constrained. Its story of a fallen alien who assumes human form – specifically, the body of Scarlett Johansson – and stalks the Scottish countryside is at once stripped-down and wide open to interpretation in a way that sets it apart from virtually every other movie around.
“I can’t answer,” the question of what it’s about, Glazer says, “because if I do, I feel like I’m just spewing out tropes. Part of the challenge for me was to try to find a new language to tell a story.” The visual language of Under the Skin is indeed virtuosic, with long takes that are the equivalent of graceful run-on sentences, and abrupt, shocking moments that serve as punctuation – exclamation points that are also question marks. The film is sinister, enigmatic and startlingly original, deviating not only from the format of most mainstream movies but also from its source novel by Michel Faber, which Glazer read over a decade ago.
“The book is nothing like the film,” he explains. “I’m not being disparaging when I say that either. I enjoyed it, but it sort of feels like describing my grandmother, who I met when I was 6. I remember the smell of the room and the biscuits on the plate. It’s like that with the book. I read it once and something about it totally held me, but I really only remember a few vivid things.” Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell worked on a script for more than a decade. “My wife and [two of her colleagues] started a company to do conceptual work on the special effects for Under the Skin. In the time it took for me to make the movie, they built up an entire repertoire of other movies, including The Tree of Life.”
Much like Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner, Under the Skin is a film that appears far lusher and more expensive than it actually is, and which uses the tension between majesty and intimacy in interesting ways. Many of the scenes in the first half, featuring Johansson’s nameless character driving around Glasgow and picking up prospective victims in a white van, were filmed documentary-style, with hidden cameras. “We had to build new cameras, because they were going to be positioned in places that were so small,” says Glazer.
It’s difficult not to invoke Stanley Kubrick, who famously turned to NASA technology in his search for state-of-the-art lenses for the filming of 1975’s Barry Lyndon – and to whom Glazer has been compared throughout his career. “He must be turning in his grave,” deadpans Glazer, who cops to his affection for the late auteur while insisting he hasn’t tried to pattern his work after him specifically. “Kubrick made definitive films, sort of full-stop-end-of-sentence works in different genres. He has a long and inescapable shadow. I think the opening scene [of Under the Skin] evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I wanted to play with that, for it to seem almost familiar and derivative – like you’d seen it before – but then it changes. Sometimes to get people to go with you, you lead them by the hand a bit. You show them something familiar and then you defamiliarize it.”
Glazer seems much more comfortable describing his leading lady, whose highly physical performance is like the inverse of her eerily disembodied work in Her. Instead of using her voice to create a fully realized character out of thin air, Johansson hollows herself out into an alluring and frightening cipher.
“Scarlett is a terrific actress and comedian who reminds me of Lauren Bacall,” says Glazer. “Here, she’s cast to be objectified, but then I hope people see the ways that we try to counter that.” At the Toronto International Film Festival, a lot of the movie’s buzz had to do with the amount of time Johansson spends unclothed onscreen, which Glazer says was always part of the design of the film. “We talked very plainly about what this undertaking meant,” he says. “I went to New York to visit her and to look her in the eye about what we were about to do and talk about it. We went through all of the issues, all of the things that would come up. She committed there and then to all of that, and she was true to her word.”