Film review: Under The Skin, London Film Festival

Jonathan Glazer has been attached to a film version of Michel Faber’s Highland-set 2001 sci-fi oddity Under the Skin for so long it almost seemed as if the maverick commercials director would never get around to making another film.

Under The Skin - London Film Festival

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It has, after all, been nine years since his last movie, Birth, and 13 since the inventively profane Sexy Beast. But if his feature film trajectory mirrors that of fellow British visionary Lynne Ramsay, the results also justify the lengthy wait between projects. Receiving its first British screenings at the London Film Festival on Sunday and yesterday, Under The Skin was the most radical and ambitious of the festival’s first weekend of big gala films.

Disorientating, disturbing, weirdly funny in places, and confounding in others, it’s a true original. Literally a story of alienation, it relocates the action of Faber’s book from Ross-shire to Glasgow and uses it as a jumping off point to present a vision of modern-day Scotland through the disconnected gaze of a shape-shifting alien succubus (Scarlett Johansson) as she hunts and kills men. The details of why she’s doing this aren’t exactly forthcoming; the striking opening sequence – in which a cacophony of noise and weird images gradually reveal themselves to be the iris of a particularly luminous eye – sets the abstract, hypnotic tone.

From here we follow Johansson (stretching herself more than previously) as she attempts to assimilate into society with a quick shopping trip to Buchanan Galleries, before driving around Govan and other less-than-salubrious areas of the city on the prowl for willing punters who can’t quite believe their luck that someone who looks like her is giving them the come-on as she pretends to be looking for the M8. It’s funny and freaky and almost as disconcerting as the fates awaiting those she lures to her abandoned house and casts into a gloopy abyss. Here Glazer unleashes the full force of his celebrated promo-making skills, but he also knows when to rein them in too. Indeed, the most disturbing moments in the film are the chilly, low-key ones in which Johansson’s nameless automaton tries to understand and process human emotion. This beautiful and endearingly weird film has the power to entrance while keeping meaning just out of reach.

Twitter: @aliharkness