Jonathan Glazer breaks new ground

We spoke to director of Sexy Beast, Birth and so many classic music videos about his unconventional sci-fi/thriller Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson.

Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin opens today (Friday, May 9) in Montreal. It’s been one of the most buzzed films of the year so far, and in my humble critical opinion, deserves every bit of the hype.

posterScarlett Johansson stars as a kind of otherworldly being, taking the form of a woman, who drives around Glasgow in a van picking up men. She seduces them and takes them back to a mysterious room, where… weird stuff happens. I’m being vague partly because of my strict policy against spoilers, but also, the film is determined not to spell things out. Adapting a 2000 novel by Dutch writer Michel Faber (which evidently provides all the details that the film elides), Glazer is content to let the audience fill in the gaps, or just sit back and soak in the ambience.

The film boasts a powerful visual style and atmosphere, a feverish score by Mica Levi (of Micachu & the Shapes) and a commanding performance by Johansson. It doesn’t resemble Glazer’s other films (Sexy Beast and Birth), or really anything else I’ve ever seen; though it evokes the spirit of old-school auteurist cinema, it truly is totally singular.

Speaking to Glazer by phone, I asked about this unique style. “Honestly, I try not to be influenced by other filmmakers at all,” he says. “You can’t unsee things you might have seen, and there might have been influences that crept through, but the goal was really to create something that didn’t remind people of other films or science fiction tropes.”

under 4With such an experimental approach, I wondered how Glazer and co. had landed a star of Johansson’s magnitude. “Scarlett had an appetite for this project,” Glazer recalls. “She wanted to do something she hadn’t done before. She’s confident enough in her abilities to take on a challenge and to risk everything for it.”

The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane got in all kinds of trouble for verbally salivating all over ScarJo’s bodacious charms, so I’ll leave that topic aside (besides, I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t been said better by Carl Carlton). But I will say that for a Hollywood star, her performance is not only bold but extremely understated. Glazer says they achieved this quality by “putting her among people like a spy, her driving the van, speaking in an English accent, wearing a disguise — removing the things that make her familiar and inhabiting what’s left.”

The film is shot in and around Glasgow, and uses the Scottish countryside to striking visual effect. “Scotland has many powerful characteristics, not least of which is its landscape. It’s very mythic, very elemental,” says Glazer. “It just meant that she was experiencing more, being knocked around by all these forces.”

under3Another essential element of the film is the dark and troubling music. I was surprised to hear that Levi had never scored a film before, and in fact was chosen for this reason. “It was really important to have a raw, fresh opinion and voice. I knew the music was gonna be the blood of the film in a way. She worked on the score for 10 months. We took our time because we wanted to get it right.”

The film has many critics raving, but Glazer says the response hasn’t been all praise. “I’m really encouraged by how people feel quite strongly about it, whether they love it or loathe it. I’ve read some reviews that are quite passionate in their loathing,” he says, sounding genuinely excited.

“I’m inspired by films that push the envelope,” he adds as our short talk wraps up. “I’m more interested in going on a journey, a challenge. It’s important to commit to something that feels like it’s fresh ground.” ■

Under the Skin opens Friday, May 9