Unforgettable, Hypnotic, Disturbing: Reflections on Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

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I spent my Halloween night eating chocolate and watching Under the Skin (2014) in bed. Make of that what you will. In the meantime, here’s my first attempt to figure out some of what I think about Jonathan Glazer’s latest effort.

2 Things to Get out of the Way
First: I feel sort of silly trying to talk about this film. I don’t think I have the right vocabulary to do so, and I haven’t seen enough of the films that Glazer might reference or has probably been inspired by. Still, Imma write this post anyway. (If you think, “Dori, why you no mention Kubrick here?” the answer is, “I haven’t seen Kubrick yet). 

Second: I know I know I know that there are plenty of people who will hate everything about Under the Skin. I don’t understand these people, but I know that they are out there. Many will scoff at the film for everything from trying too hard to not trying enough. Some will find it pretentious or will be so frustrated by its obscurity that they write it off before giving it a chance.

Oh, and Another Thing
I’m pretty sure that I really love this film. In fact, Under the Skin embodies so much of what I love about film, that I really have no choice but to like it regardless of its flaws, particulars, or subject matter. Above all, this film is an experience. It takes willing viewers into itself forcefully and overwhelms them. Glazer’s film is strange and hypnotic. It is beautiful. It is terrifying. It is unsettling. Though the film is not perfect and though it is elusive, the sheer force of its sound and its visuals is too great to ignore. Whether one “likes” the film or not, they have little choice but to be affected by it. Under the Skin gets under the skin (hahaha) as only cinema can. 
Watch Under the Skin

Cinema as Visual (and also Audio) Experience
After watching Under the Skin, I am hella bummed that I was not able to see this film in a theater. If this film overwhelmed me the way it did on my laptop, then I can only imagine what it’s like to see it on a big screen. There are images in this film that I don’t think I will ever forget (In particular, the film’s final shot and the scene under the black pool). Some of them are strange, some are frightening, some are beautiful, and some are all three and then some. The film is beautifully shot and reminds viewers of just how much the visual composition of a shot can accomplish. It’s certainly no coincidence that the film begins with a image of an eye. Under the Skin is clearly a film concerned with the power of the visual. In fact, one could even read it (particularly it’s first half) as a cautionary tale about the dangers of looking on that which has been constructed to be attractive (I don’t necessarily buy this reading, but it would be interesting to consider).

Under the Skin is most definitely a film with an ‘aesthetic,’ with a visual style all its own. Through its unique visuals, the film challenges viewers to see things differently and (through a number of subjective and pseudosubjective) shots, it challenges them to look on the familiar with the eyes of an alien. The film also includes many visuals that blur the line between what’s literal and what’s figurative (the ‘murder’ scenes comes to mind first, but there are others). Moments like this remind viewers that to see something and to know or understand it are two different things entirely. Under the Skin doesn’t just put images on screen that explain or go with its “story”; rather, it presents visuals that change the perception of those who look on them (for an hour and forty five minutes at least).

Like the film’s visuals, its score is also carefully designed to maximize its impact on the viewer and to render just about everything as strange as possible. Under the Skin‘s use of sound unnerves and builds suspense, but there is more to it than that. It’s unrelenting, it conditions viewers to its terrifying and alien (but familiar) world. . . I’m sorry that I don’t know how to explain it better than that at the moment. If you watch the film, I think you’ll understand what I mean. After Under the Skin, the world outside of the film doesn’t sound quite right for a few minutes . . . which is pretty cool if you ask me. 

Story sans Detail and Explanation
While drawing attention to the power of sound and, to an even greater extent, of carefully crafted visuals, Under the Skin also reminds viewers that in a very fundamental sense, the visual (or sound + the visual) is all one needs to have a film. Films can and usually do tell a story, but, if the visuals and the sound do enough, then the story can be reduced to a secondary role, and the viewer will still come away from the film a different person than they went in. Stories make people feel and feel differently, but so can an series of unexplained images. This is not to say that Under the Skin is entirely without a story (as if it could be); if someone were to ask me what Under the Skin is “about,” I could give them a very basic plot summary, but it wouldn’t tell them nearly as much about the film as showing them one of its more visually stunning, intensely rhythmic, or particularly abstract sequences.

Things happen in Under the Skin; it has characters and there is a story, but very little is explained. There is no scrolling text at the beginning that gives viewers the history of the film’s sci-fi world. I would not be surprised to discover that people dislike this film for its lack of exposition or for its failure to tell them what motivates the woman. Certainly, the film leaves one with many questions about its plot: Where did the woman come from? What does she do to these men and why? Who is that man on the motorcycle? Is he some sort of alien too? The list goes on. However, those aren’t the questions that matter to the film, nor are they are most significant ones that is poses. By restricting the amount of explanation and of specific and literal details in the film, Under the Skin opens itself up to a wider range of interpretation; in doing so, it directs viewers to ask larger, more general, and more philosophic questions than those listed above. Who cares where the woman came from, what do her actions say about humanity?

Perhaps what I most enjoyed about the film’s choice not to explicitly explain the events it depicts (whether through forced dialogue or some other means) are the ways in which it demonstrates just how unnecessary that sort of explanation is. I’d be willing to bet that anyone who has grown up with movies could come up with a plausible answer to all of their questions about the film’s plot in minutes if they wanted to. Who’s the woman? Maybe she’s an alien. Who’s the guy on the motorcycle? Perhaps he’s her supervisor. Whatever. Not only can film be powerful without a certain degree of explanation and plot detail, viewers are also more than capable of filling in the gaps themselves if they want to. The films we’ve seen inform the one’s we go to see; we don’t need every little thing explained away anymore.

Disturbing the Viewer
Under the Skin is a puzzling, haunting, overwhelming, and hard to forget film. This film lingers. It makes itself a part of you (is that sexual? maybe). It fills one with disquiet in a way that only a film can. To be disturbed and to be unable to forget a film is to be changed by it. That cinema can do this and that Under the Skin does it so forcefully is delightful and as far as I am concerned, rather amazing. I wonder if an analogy could be made between viewers of the film and the men the woman preys on. We come to this beautiful thing and it overwhelms us with its force. Idk. . . just a thought.

There is one moment in particular in the film that shocked and disturbed me so much that I really have been thinking about it ever since. I haven’t been that startled by a movie in god knows how long (possibly never). That same moment is also sure to unsettle anyone who has seen American Beauty. In Under the Skin, Glazer presents a version of the famous plastic bag scene that will make sure you never want to look at a plastic bag again. This is all to say that, Under the Skin knows that cinema has the power to alter the way viewers feel as well as the ways in which they understand the world. The film does not shy away from this power; rather it does just about all it can with it to ensure that viewers are left as uncomfortable as possible. Though one could take this aspect of the film as a warning (“Stay away, look at what the monster has done to you!”), I rather like it.

Until Next Time
The film presents itself as elusive, mysterious, and strange, but it is also powerful; in this way, Under the Skin is just like the otherworldly woman/creature at its center. No matter what one thinks of Glazer’s most recent effort, the film makes it very difficult for anyone to leave it unchanged. Under the Skin is a scary and beautiful sci-fi film that repeatedly demonstrates the power of cinema to change how people feel and to alter how they see the world. If someone leaves Under the Skin bothered by how utterly uncomfortable or confused they feel, they would also do well to remember that the film works very hard to make them feel that way. With its moody, stunning, and disturbing visuals, and with its hypnotic and tense soundtrack, and with its general obscurity, Under the Skin makes for an unforgettable cinematic experience that, while it may be hard to pin down, is certainly worthwhile. 
Get Under the Skin on Blu-Ray

There is a lot more worth discussing about Under the Skin than I mention in this post, but that’s all I’ve got for now.

Thank you so much for reading!

8 thoughts on “Unforgettable, Hypnotic, Disturbing: Reflections on Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

    • Thanks so much. It’s so great to find a film that remains so stunning with repeated viewings. I know I need to own it so I can watch it again. And again.

      • So few films allow viewers to think and draw their own conclusions. We are pounded over the head with so much explanation and obvious story telling that many have lost the desire to even think at the movies. This one is a brilliant film.

      • In fact, you’ve inspired me to write my own post about the film. I’ve been hesitant in writing one because it is so personal and affecting, I wasn’t sure how to get my thoughts down. Your post is wonderfully written and I think it’s time I did the same on my site. Cheers.

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