This one I recommend.

This one I recommend.

Scarlett Johansson in 'Under The Skin'.

Scarlett Johansson in ‘Under The Skin’.

Artistic; bewildering

Artistic; bewildering

One of my favourite filmmakers is Luis Buñuel, a director whose uniquely surreal and disturbing films sparked strong reactions in the 1920’s and 1930’s and have since become classics in their own right. Under The Skin is a 2013 art film (released officially in 2014) which I confidently believe would have made the man very proud.

Based on a similarly titled Michael Faber novel, Under The Skin struck me as a love letter, not only to Buñuel, but other surrealist filmmakers I’ve grown to love over my years as a film enthusiast. The direction is by Jonathan Glazer, whose work I’ll definitely explore further.

The movie starts off by setting an apt tone for the impending experience. Footage of abstract imagery that eventually starts resembling a human eye cuts to footage of a man driving his motorcycle in the middle of the night. He stops near a ditch where he retrieves the body of a woman. Immediately, the film evokes memories of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The next scene shows the woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, in a bright, completely white room where she’s being stripped naked by another woman, also played by Johansson. The first woman’s seemingly dead body sheds a single tear after the other woman has taken all of her clothes off and put them on herself. The other woman also examines a tiny ant on her finger that came from lord knows where.

The woman then appears to spend her days driving around Scotland, where she uses her charm and appearance to seduce young men, luring them into her home, which appears to entirely consist of some sort of dark liquid that swallows everyone but her. After being submerged, the men disappear, leaving only an empty skin behind in the dark nothingness. Her process is overseen by the motorcyclist from earlier in the movie (Jeremy McWilliams), who becomes her pursuer once she eventually fails to deliver and runs off. The motorcyclist’s nature is never explained, but he appears to be the go-to hitman of the one in charge, whoever that would be.

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Her change of heart happens after she meets a lonely, heavily deformed man who’s different from all the others. Feeling genuine sympathy for the man, she lets him go, which evidently angers whomever is in control of everything. She ends up with a different man, who helps her discover more feelings she seemingly never knew.

Under The Skin is a well-shot film of few words and strong atmosphere. I watched it in anticipation of Lucy, which also stars Scarlett Johansson (and I may or may not see this weekend). I’ve always liked her as an actress, and since the film is so quiet, she gets to rely on body language and eye movements to convey the emotions of her disturbed character, and it works like a charm. The movie slows down somewhat towards the beginning of the third act when there’s a shortage of the bizarre imagery that got me hooked in the first place, but it still holds together thanks to how great Johansson is.

There’s also an admirable level of authenticity in Under The Skin. Glazer cast a professional motorcyclist as the enigmatic one in the movie so that he could get authentic shots of a bike speeding through the slippery roads of rainy Scotland, and the deformed man is not an actor in a mask; that’s Adam Pearson, who’s lived most of his life with neurofibromatosis and was cast after Glazer contacted Changing Faces, a charity for disfigured people. Meanwhile, most of the exchanges between Johansson and the civilians she picks up in her van were improvised and apparently half of the men didn’t even know there was a film being made.

This helps the character feel real, in spite of the beautifully surrealistic feel of the film itself, but I must also praise the sequences that actually are special effects since they too are something great and original. The film is certainly worth seeing, even if it’s only for the dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish imagery. One review stated that Glazer might be an heir to Stanley Kubrick himself and it doesn’t seem far-fetched.

I give Under The Skin a 4.5/5 for its effort and unforgettable strangeness. I’m not sure if we’ll have time to go see Lucy this weekend, but if we do, chances are it’s no Under The Skin.

4.5/5 whatever

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