Scarlett Johannsen in Under the Skin

Much has been written of Jonathan Glazer’s return to directing, after a 9-year absence, and even more has been written about not only Scarlett Johannsen’s seemingly against-type casting, but more still about her full frontal scenes.

I confess that I had read none of this hype and hysteria, in an attempt to avoid giving any of it away, as I realised that I wasn’t going to have time to read the book before seeing the film and, thus, needed a spoiler-free run at it. So, I went into it knowing only the flimsiest of ‘alien seductress, gonzo filming’ bases for the film.

Notwithstanding the fact that the whole evening before and after watching, and the watching experience itself, had an uncomfortable and literally otherworldly and alien feel, for reasons best withheld for now, this was an odd experience for me.

I’m a seasoned watcher of the strange and serious, the appalling and atrocious, the profane and violent, the weird and wonderful. There is literally nothing that, given the opportunity, I have turned my eyes away from. As best as possible I live in a world of regrettable action, not squandered opportunities. So, in a filmic sense I feel well traveled, but this film was a head-scratcher for me.

Johannsen’s character is clearly not of this world, from the very outset. She appears in a pointed and yet ambiguous and unreal state and then proceeds to drive around Glasgow, speaking to the natives in real life and garnering the kinds of responses you’d expect of people encountering Scarlett Johannsen on a ring-road outside Tesco. This device, to create an unsure response in people is clever, and the mix with real actors and the public is also deftly handled.

Where it grated with me, and where the film grated overall, was in the purpose it was all supposed to be driving at. The staccato music and choppy editing, the gonzo filming mixed with elegant set-piece shots. I couldn’t work out if it was a mess of stock contrivances, or an art-house mash-up, or somewhere in between. It has a very obvious underlying theme, which is largely explained in the first scene, but I couldn’t fathom what everything else was trying to show me.

Johannsen is admittedly very good. She can act, no question at all. The cinematography is excellent too, except that I felt I’d seen it all before, in any other film set in Scotland. Every shot could’ve been lifted from Trainspotting, Local Hero, Morvern Callar and a dozen more. There was nothing original here. And yet, I was rapt, after the first 15 mins that is.

So, why aren’t I completely slagging it off? In fact, why am I bothering to write this at all, if I’m so unimpressed with it?

The evening I watched it was a strange one overall, which set my mind against the film from the off, and I felt actually angry that I’d sat through it all. It was so disjointedly up its own artsy ass, and yet obvious and cliched too, that I felt annoyed and slightly taken advantage of. In the next few days however, having thought and thought about it, my mind has shifted.

On its own merits the tale of growth, of being born and developing a sense of self in what is an alien existence to her, is powerful. The unpleasantness of some of the watching, from an emotional as opposed to a visual sense, was what made the transition happen for the audience too. I feel that this is the case anyhow.

What was strange was the fact that Johannsen’s full frontal had to be mentioned to me a couple of times after the film before I registered that, yes, that was in it. This is either an indicator of my obliviousness to nudity through frank over-saturation, or a marker of the film’s ability to move the viewer into a state of complete acceptance of that not only not being Scarlett Johannsen you’re watching, but not even being a human at all.

I’m going to reserve judgment on that one for a while yet.