‘Do you think I’m pretty?’
Modern art aye. Who knows what it’s all about. I love a visit to the Tate Modern as much as the next pseudo intellectual, but I love it because I like laughing at it. The idea that any of the nonsense within could be considered high art seems almost purposefully absurd. It’s rare that a film will evoke modern art because as a rule, modern art is not something that will get bums on seats. Some films are on the artier end of the spectrum, but you would normally have to enter the murky world of foreign cinema to encounter something that wouldn’t look out of place in the Tate Modern. Under the Skin is art, however. Jonathan Demme’s ode to god-knows-what belongs in a modern art museum and not in a cinema…
The Female (Scarlett Johansson) is a dead eyed extraterrestrial being who has taken on human form in order to lure pasty, Scottish men to their death. A bit like a siren, but one who drives round in a van through Glasgow city centre, instead of singing sea shanties on some rocks somewhere.
To her credit, there is nothing wrong with Johansson’s performance here. She inhabits the role beautifully and manages to combine the facade of primal sensuality with utter emptiness. To remain with the positives, visually there are moments of sheer breathtaking mastery at play throughout. Demme contrasts the neon lights of Glasgow with the ethereal beauty of the Scottish countryside in a way that manages to showcase both the grime and the virtue of both locations. Similarly, Mica Livi’s score is both haunting and insistent, in a way often not seen in mainstream cinema.
That being said, this isn’t a film. Not really. There isn’t really a story or any kind of character development. Instead we have a collage of sight and sound, and while some people will love that kind of thing, it didn’t do much for me. I’m sure if I were to read up on it, I would discover that Under the Skin is actually a metaphor for masculine fragility or summation of depression or some other such lofty piffle, but ultimately, not every film should come with outside research as a prerequisite.
With Under the Skin, Jonathan Demme has made an undoubtedly visually stunning film that was the critics darling upon release back in 2013. But he has also made an inaccessible non-movie that 99% of people won’t enjoy. Here’s hoping you are in the other 1%.