JDIFF Review – Under The Skin

An alien woman of origins unknown takes to Glasgow and the Scottish highlands in search of men. Winning them over with her charm and seeming innocence, Laura (Scarlett Johansson) entraps her victims before sucking them dry.

Under The Skin, based on Michael Faber’s novel of the same name, is director Jonathan Glazer’s first film since 2004’s Birth, and is equally as disturbing and mesmerising as his previous work. Much of the film is left to the audience to decide and, although there is seemingly a reason for Laura’s actions, we are never told what it is, where he has come from or why she only preys on men. That’s sort of the point though.

Scarlett Johansson is making seriously good choices in her career at the moment, and her performance in Under The Skin is a fascinating one, especially when viewed against her role in last week’s Her. In Her, Samantha is heard but never seen, in Under The Skin, Laura is seen but rarely heard. This is not something that every actress could pull off, but Johansson excels in this highly physical role, making Laura seductive, frightening and intriguing.

Many of the other actors in the film are actually people who stopped to give Johansson directions and this adds to the air of strangeness and spontaneity in the film. Of course, there are scenes with faces we recognise, but they never last long. This is Johansson’s film, after all.

Visually, Under The Skin is a work of art. Contrasting the grey landscape of Glasgow with the haunting beauty of the Scottish countryside is one thing, and it works incredibly well, but the third element – Laura’s home/spaceship – is shining and dark, solid and liquid, safe and utterly terrifying. The scenes in this location are beautifully shot, with Johansson literally leading her suitors to their doom. Special effects are used sparingly throughout, but to great impact, with the word ‘skin’ being the operative one.

Jonathan Glazer’s film is a study of language and silence, of trust and violence and, above all, of the power of sex. Laura entrances her suitors with the promise of sex, yet seems surprised when she learns what it is. There are also beautiful elements of the old school Femme Fatale about Laura and her actions, and she is a fascinating sexual innocent; a mix of succubus, Femme Fatale and virgin.

Under the Skin contains a powerhouse performance from Scarlett Johansson, reminding us just how good she can truly be. The cinematography is beautiful and the music – by Mica Levi – is perfectly creepy yet fascinating. There is plenty to disturb and inspire in Under The Skin and, even though the pacing is a little muddled, this is a powerful, terrifying, heart wrenchingly beautiful piece of work from both Johansson and Glazer.

Rating: 4/5

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