With Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer boldly cements himself as one of few directors deserving of being called a master despite having a markedly slim filmography. It’s been 10 years since the release of his last film, Birth, a romance about reincarnation that’s gradually amassed one of the greater art-house cult followings of recent memory. What seems much less discussed, though, is that Under the Skin, a virtuoso audiovisual experience whose comparisons to the works of Kubrick, of all people, actually feel reductive, is only Glazer’s third film (his first was 2000’s Sexy Beast). Yes, the 48-year-old Englishman cut his teeth directing music videos for Radiohead and Jamiroquai, and helmed commercials for everyone from Guinness to Nike, but rare is the filmmaker who turns out as transcendent a feature as Glazer now has with only his third crack at it. (Hold your tongues, Steve McQueen fans.)
Adapted with an audacious looseness from Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien newly inhabiting Earth—and a human female form—in an effort to attract and entrap unwitting men for the benefit of her own race. Of course, none of this intel is explicitly shared with the viewer. Most often, Under the Skin is pure, intoxicating cinema, its story told via Daniel Landin’s graphic (and surprisingly guerilla) cinematography, and bolstered by Mica Levi’s indelibly eerie, haunt-your-daydreams score. Glazer, however, isn’t one who puts form at the forefront.
Meeting me at the lobby terrace of New York’s Bowery Hotel, the writer-director shares a preference of viewing formal details as afterthoughts—elements that, fittingly, find their place as the whole takes shape. It’s a somewhat alarming thing to hear from a director so adept at presenting such an awe-inspiring finished product (if you were so inclined, you might deck your walls with blown up, Under the Skin stills), but it is, of course, what makes his latest so exceptional. Just as there’s something terribly captivating lurking beneath virtually every surface in this movie, so, too, is there something thematically dense beneath the marvelous style of the film itself.
So much has been discussed about the long gestation period that stretched between Birth and Under the Skin, and I wanted to focus on this theme of gestation, and birth, and rebirth, because it certainly seems to crisscross between the two films. In Under the Skin, there’s even an element of anti-birth, with victims caught in a fatal sort of amniotic fluid. Why do you think you’re drawn to this theme?
I don’t know. I’m very bad at detecting themes in my work. Well, I can detect them, but I don’t think about them. I don’t analyze them. I can see that there are things that repeat, and things that I’m interested in, but the truthful answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know why I do that, or why I think that way. What’s your analysis?
Well, my take is that, whether consciously or not, the notions of birth and gestation are clearly influencing your work, and I was wondering, since you were already working on the Under the Skin screenplay while making Birth, did the production of the latter influence the tweaking of the former?
I was working on the screenplay for Under the Skin even before I did Birth, and I was only very briefly faithful to the novel. I was faithful to it for about 10 minutes. And then, for the next seven-and-a-half years, I wasn’t. For me, the novel was just a jumping-off point, really. There were many ideas in the novel that I didn’t feel interested in dramatizing. I don’t know if anything happen during the making of Birth that incited these liberties, though.
Maybe there was something you learned on the production of Birth that affected the approach to your next film.
No doubt. But the thing is, when you’re making a film, you’re in an absolute black hole of that film. So my experiences of making Birth must have informed my experiences of making Under the Skin, but I didn’t pick that up until after Birth. I wasn’t even thinking about Under the Skin while I was making Birth. I was too preoccupied. I wasn’t conscious of any lessons I learned.
Well, that’s an interesting choice of words, “black hole,” considering what befalls Laura’s victims.
Yeah, yeah. Indeed. [laughs]
In the film’s press notes, you describe the alien’s transformation as being from an “it” to a “she,” and you cite that as being the core of the movie. Were there any concerns about how you might be depicting female sexuality on screen, for a viewer who didn’t read this as a discovery of humanity and identity, but as, say, a cautionary tale about female libido?
Well, it wasn’t meant to be a cautionary tale at all. I think the female sexuality in the film is something which is objectified. The creature that Scarlett plays in the film exists to be objectified. She’s there to be objectified. And what she does in the course of the film, in her own discovery, is she reclaims that—she de-eroticizes her own image, actually. Thinking about that now, that’s nothing that I would worry about. It seems to me to be somehow in line with Scarlett’s life as an actress, and in the way she’s objectified. There’s a parallel idea of her reclaiming her image, and her sexuality in this film, which I think she does.
That’s really interesting to hear. Have you seen Her?
Well, there’s an interesting parallel there too, as we basically have two back-to-back movies in which Scarlett plays a not-quite-human entity coming to terms with being at a remove from humanity.
Yeah, I suppose it’s in the air or something.