It’s been awhile, a really long while actually, since I’ve seen a film as genuinely beautifully weird as Under the Skin. I mean that as a compliment too. I was utterly engrossed, enthralled is perhaps the better word given the subject matter, by this film. I’ve seen a lot of self-consciously strange indie films, painfully self-aware screaming ‘look how weird I am’. I like weird films, but my goodness you have to wade through a lot of dross to find the good ones. This one though, this one feels like a reward for a thousand terrible arty ‘weird’ shorts that I’ve sat through over the years. This one isn’t trying to be strange or kooky or off-the-wall, it just is full-heartedly weird. It’s decided to portray the viewpoint of our world through the eyes of an uncomprehending alien and its committed to the task utterly. Alien is what the film is, nothing is ever explained, and everything we know about Scarlett Johansson’s character we’re shown not told. We see our world through an alien lens and eventually, like her we come to see the beauty in the mundane alongside her.
I suspect that the film works better if you’re Scottish, there’s something about Scarlett Johansson puttering about Glasgow (walking through the Buchanan Galleries, driving a white van through scabby bits of the suburbs) that gives it an extra surrealness that I suspect you lose if those places (those terribly ordinary faces) aren’t familiar to you. Perhaps not though, perhaps the places they picked are sufficiently ordinary and anonymous that they could be anywhere but I suspect knowing Glasgow gives it a certain extra frisson. It was the closing film of the Glasgow Film Festival – I wanted to see it then but it was sold out, and I can completely see why, such a fitting film to premiere at GFF.
The sound design is excellent. Scratch that. The sound design is amazing. Strange and alienating, it commits to creating a detached and disconnected soundscape. When she’s out hunting the sound feels like it’s coming from outside a bubble, as though she’s listening from a distance, safe and untouchable, utterly in control. By the time the tables are turned on our alien protagonist, the sound is utterly in the place, she is reachable, touchable and very much a vulnerable part of this world and the soundscape reflects that. Most of the time you don’t even notice the sound design (always a good sign) its so subtle, but in the quiet, introspective moments it shows its true colours, reflecting her mood and adding to her character development. It adds to her thrall. The score may signpost threats in the narrative – to both other people from her, and of other people to her – but it’s the sound design that draws us into her world – there’s very little dialogue for large swathes of the film – makes us forget that she’s actually a serial killer, and makes us root for her survival. I need to see this film again purely to examine what the sound designer Johnnie Burn was doing at various points, because I was too wrapped up in the film to pay attention to it most of the time. Burn is not a sound designer whose work I’ve noticed before (IMDB tells me he was ‘additional sound designer’ on Glazer’s previous film Birth, but this appears to be his breakthrough film), but I’m in awe of his skill here, it’s the kind of sound that makes me go: that’s what I want to achieve when I grow up, something that strange and beautiful. Magnificent.