It’s a testament to Jonathan Glazer’s singular, jagged-collage storytelling technique that I didn’t realize I’d read the book from which his Under the Skin is adapted until midway through the film. In fairness to me, the adaptation is so unfaithful it’s a wanton slut who’s been fucked so vigorously and pleasurably she’s unrecognizable.
(Like every reviewer, I’m going to have to give away who the lead character really is and what she does. If you want to experience the pure fine-art experience of Glazer’s masterpiece, the surprises as they unfold, stop here. Know before you go that it is a masterpiece — not a movie, not a film, but cinema — therefore immune to subjective negative-or-positive opinions. Okay. That’s all. Good-bye.)
This isn’t really an adaptation; it’s an abstraction of the book. The main character doesn’t even have a name any more. In the book she’s Isserley, in the film she’s merely credited as Scarlett Johansson. The common denominator is both women are aliens harvesting single men they pick up on roads in Scotland. In the book she confines herself to hitchhikers in rural areas, in the film she’s concentrated around Glasgow. And the film-version alien is the one preying on men by accosting them, not waiting for hitchhikers to ask to be picked up. Presumably this is intended to empower a female character more than author Michel Faber intended. Fair enough: Johansson is physically considerably more vulnerable in appearance than Isserley.
Isserley’s powerlessness is one of three important themes that Glazer has pretty much incinerated. Driven to desperation by poverty, Isserley has agreed to undergo surgery to transform herself into a human being, but it can only be partly successful; from what I remember, it would be like trying to surgically adapt a dog to be a human. She has excessively knobbly wrists and elbows, for instance, and she needs safety-glass-thick spectacles in order to see. What she does have is a fantastic rack. Not that Johansson doesn’t have an impressive set of boobs, but Isserley’s are so magnificent that men are willing to overlook her other deformities. And that is another essential hilarity of the book — how lust doth blinker men — that is lost in the film because Johansson is so beautiful all over, not just in her bust. Yes, in the film the men are so enchanted by lust that they are willing to walk into a manifestly dangerous situation when they enter the killing house, but it’s not quite as funny and truthful as a great pair of tits blinding them to everything else.
Isserley’s predicament is a metaphor for the modern human chained to the corporation and mutilated by its demand for conformity, just as the alien corporation itself is a metaphor for bottom-line-focused greed; in the book, it also mutilates the men and fattens them up in a factory and abattoir in much the same way industrial-level farms and meat processors operate.
Glazer dumps all of this. For most of the film, Johansson character is a cryptic siren, a seemingly emotionless lure with no apparent motivation. She is somewhat observational, but her insights into the human condition are no match for Isserley’s.
Johansson downplays her performance beautifully, her British accent is fluid and believable, a nice juxtaposition to the gruff Glaswegians. I admire her more than ever for the courage to make this film. The other courageous performance is Adam Pearson as the grotesquely deformed man Johansson’s alien has compassion for. That isn’t makeup, and I wish to hell it were.
This is such a ballsy approach to narrative that I’m in utter awe; I would never adapt the book like this unless I were working with a director pushing the boundaries of what ‘visionary’ means, like Glazer, and I’m just his bitch scribing and structuring that vision, or trying to. If I were writing this for me to direct, it would follow the book faithfully, merely break it down to consumable two-hour film bits like a good Hollywood boy.
It’s not like Glazer is hiding behind abstraction to mask his inability to tell a story. We’ve seen him sustain long-form narrative effectively in Sexy Beast, which was entertaining overall but the dialogue was tiresome, and The Others, which also shows his flair for drama and eliciting engaging performances, but likewise his weakness with banter. That’s so odd for a Londoner like Glazer; if there’s one thing they excel at, it’s crackling dialogue.
Glazer is primarily a commercials and music-video director, and that is more apparent in Under the Skin than either of his previous features. This is why I mention the importance of sustaining long-form narrative; it’s actually not easy for commercial directors to do unless they are following a strict blueprint script laid out for them by the studio on some colossus of a production, in which case they are really supervising directors, not the true creators of the project. Films like Glazer’s are works of passion, hard to finance even with Scarlett Johansson attached and full-frontal nude for many minutes on end. (If this film makes any money, it will be because of that.) Where it is apparent that he is a commercials/music-video director is in his willingness to experiment, to push the limits in ways that most of us simply aren’t allowed if we are expected to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, make money on the picture, and therefore be allowed to make the next.
Have I used the word ‘ballsy,’ yet?
I’m going to be a cynical indie-film insider and say there is a mercenary reason for why Glazer has chosen to go so abstract with what was already a cult book with a singular prose style and darkly humorous story. Commercials directors are the highest earning in filmed content, by far. The bigger ones at the height of their run often take a huge loss making a feature even for the studios. But that run is limited; the advertising world is fickler than fashion. If you want to keep booking the Sony spots — especially for Europe, where there is much more demand for high-concept creativity — then you’d better stay on the cutting edge. Advertising people love the snob appeal of features directors, especially daring auteurs. I’ll bet a lot more boards will be coming this director’s way now.
Glazer has brought both Stanley Kubrick and Nicholas Roeg into the discussion, choices that are interesting but obvious when you consider the text. No matter how much he liked to fuck around with modern classics — people were outraged at the liberties taken in The Shining, forget A Clockwork Orange — I doubt Kubrick would have abstracted this book to the extent Glazer has.
I find that stylistically Under the Skin bows to Kubrick, but essentially it is more Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie as the observational alien. I’m not as big a fan of Roeg’s work as others from my generation who grew up with it, but I do like him very much as a person. I’ve only met him a few times. The first was on the set of Track 29. He and his wife, Theresa Russell, who was starring in the film opposite Gary Oldman, were drunk in the middle of the afternoon in her dressing room. They were laughing so hard it’s fair to say they were falling on the floor. When asked why such mirth, Roeg replied, “Because we have no fucking clue what we’re doing on this film!”
That is what I admire about where Glazer has gone with his abstraction. Despite what some non-filmmaker reviewers have said, he didn’t “give up trying to find a cohesive story.” For all of my years writing scripts, I could not create a piece that begins as a fine-art video installation that you are convinced will never have any meaning and ends up coalescing into perfect sense by the end. Glazer fragments the hyper-minimalist narrative — only the absolute essentials are included — then slowly lets it congeal and take form. Unlike ninety-nine percent of films made, he isn’t channeling the viewer along a traditional plot path, but letting the pieces fall into place in a recognizable pattern, teasing our cognitive process. That requires intense skill and experience, and is a major part of the genius of Under the Skin.
To achieve this, Glazer had to go where Roeg went in that dressing room, to a place where he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing, where he let go of the narrative, shattered it. He let it reform in editorial. He spent a great deal of time and thought on this, which is why it took so long to make. Those reviewers who have clearly never experienced this process should trust me when I say that making superior experimental narrative that works — and this works — is far more difficult than telling “a cohesive story.” I’d be terrified to attempt it, although I am tempted whenever I see pieces of cinema like this.
As my own cognition took shape and the recognition that I’d read the book dawned on me midway through — I don’t read anything about a film I review before I see it — it was actually a visual mnemonic that triggered recognition. I had seen this book before, not just read it. What is seems Glazer has done is to take his cue from the original paperback cover, the one I read, which is no longer in circulation. From the opening images of rural Scotland at dawn — the winding road a glimmering water moccasin stretched over weary hills — I said to myself, “The bastard’s doing Bill Henson.” That was infuriating because fine-art photographer Henson is a major visual inspiration for me; I use his work often in film treatments, and light shots that way whenever possible — HD is passionately in love with Henson’s brand of diffused lighting, you’re feeding right into the format’s strength. It was the repeated use of this visual together with the realization Johansson had to be an alien that made me realize I’d read the book. (It’s one of my favorite books, up there with Cloud Atlas. It’s a testament to my spaciness that I didn’t immediately recognize the title.) Bill Viola and a few other recognizable fine artists who work in video are also clear inspirations, for both visuals and the extraordinary sound design.
I am rarely tempted by any film to both see it and read the book it’s adapted from again, but that’s the impact of what Glazer has created, of the glorious outrageousness of his abstraction. It’s a standard adage in filmmaking that “the film is not the book,” but Under the Skin takes it to a whole other level of not-book-ness. I have been scouring the ‘Net to find out what Faber thinks of what Glazer has done to his work. I can find nothing. But Faber seems like a fairly out-there guy. My guess is he was probably taken aback after seeing it, perhaps even appalled, but then settled into acknowledging the film for what it is: genius.