The battle between image and narrative has pestered cinema since its inception. The greatest films have seamlessly intertwined these two elements by telling a great story through stunning visuals, yet for the most part we see films that are driven by plot, the visuals a sad afterthought. Music video directors who segue into feature film makers often represent this clash well; what use are pretty, inventive visuals if the characters are emotionally uninvolving? But on the other hand, cinema is essentially a visual medium, why waste it through humdrum mise en scene?
Which leads us to Jonathan Glazer, who began his career as a lauded music video and ad director. With notable work with Radiohead and Massive Attack under his belt, Glazer went to make the feature films Sexy Beast and Birth. While those two films were fairly straightforward narrative pieces, it is his latest film Under the Skin that truly belies his music video beginnings. Loosely based on Michael Faber’s novel, it follows Laura, a beguiling, glamorous young vixen who roams the desolate areas around Glasgow looking for young male prey.
One of the key elements of the film is its ambiguity and mystery. We don’t know where Laura is from, what her motivations are or why she has that peculiarly plummy English accent. Soon the audience begins to realise that Laura is not quite what she seems, yet Glazer and writer Walter Campbell keep their cards close to their chest. The film is a triumph of suggestion and innuendo, leaving the audience with more questions than answers. In many ways it is similar to some of Kubrick’s work, in that any chance of sentimentality is replaced with cold sterility.
Scarlett Johansson plays the enigmatic lead, which she is utterly perfect for. I don’t believe Johansson has great range as an actress, but playing an otherworldly, seductive chanteuse is her bread and butter. The contrast between the sallow, desperate young men she picks up (who amazingly were non-actors oblivious to the set up) and her porcelain doll is delicious. Cruising around in her white van looking for her next victim, Laura becomes a genuinely strange new cinematic icon. The audience revels in these surreal images of a Hollywood starlet asking where the nearest Asda is in obscure Scottish locales.
The trailer for the film was genuinely exciting; we were privy to what seemed like new images to stimulate the senses, and hints of the esoteric score by Mica Levi. The film IS visually striking. There is a mysterious opening sequence reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s infamous psychedelic section; we seem to be watching this strange entity being birthed straight from the cosmos. Elsewhere there are some startling images inside Laura’s lair, where her victims are submerged into an oily abyss. Combined with Mica Levi’s ominous, primal orchestration, these moments are truly unnerving.
Yet there is something unsatisfying about the film as a whole. Although the documentary style footage of Laura stalking the bleak streets of Glasgow is creepy and surreal, it often deadens the drive of the film with its repetition. It’s beguiling, no doubt, but the meandering, barely there plot feels intriguing rather than profound. Again we go back to this division between visuals versus plot, and in this case I feel that the film is lacking that narrative drive to really make it a transcendent piece of cinema. As a mood piece it is really rather wonderful, but you get the feeling that this will come to be known as a cult film in the vein of Nicholas Roeg rather than a bonafide classic.