A film is a living thing. So, whatever you may think, is a film critic. The space between a moving picture and that perpetual-motion phenomenon called human response is slippery and unstable. It can even be deadly, like the liquid black floor victims sink into in Under the Skin, lured by Scarlett Johansson’s alien hunter-gatherer.
She wants human meat. She is disguised as a sexy single woman touring Glasgow in jeans, fake-fur jacket and a white van. And the victims of Jonathan Glazer’s eerily hypnotic horror/sci-fi movie from Michael Faber’s 2000 novel may include critics – I make my confession here – who hated its brutalist doom-spell on first viewing and started falling for it on the second.
I’m not alone: the entire Venice Film Festival, last September, was split between booers and cheerers for Glazer’s first film since the stylish-glacial Birth (2004). (It’s only the third in a career that began with the gangster bang of Sexy Beast in 2000.) For early stretches Under the Skin walks, talks and stalks like something undead: a glazed and glooming fable, living though barely pulsing in the heroine’s extraterrestrial skin. Her phrasebook English sentences and enquiries have a sinister, machined soothingness. Men picked up on streets become carrion drowned in the mysterious blackness she takes them “home” to.
The film’s first moment of beauty is two hands touching in the fateful death-element. Then the discordance and atonalities start to captivate, even to bewitch. Dimensions converge; Bluebeard is alive and well and a space-female; menacing, unearthly music (Mica Levi) adds to the doomsday evangelism.
I know what I thought of the film on first viewing. Missionary nihilism clad in artistic noir: a joke would crack its face, so would a moment of hope. But though he doesn’t bring them with bells and whistles, Glazer smuggles little affirmations and surreal grace-notes almost throughout: from the joining of hands to an incongruous, up-tempo slapstick clip from a Tommy Cooper TV show (discordance gone Dadaist); from the transfiguring episode of the saving of a deformed man to the brief, rapt shot of Johansson – herself now become a victim-fugitive – in a stolen moment of sleep, her face’s image lap-dissolved into that of the surrounding forest. Under the Skin may be a film only a suicide candidate would want on his desert island. But it has a kind of benediction creep. You could find its entrancements stalking you for good, in every meaning of that phrase.